Genetic bacterial evidence indicates that three Texans, including one in Tarrant County in 2011, contracted listeriosis from a Blue Bell ice cream product, officials said Thursday.
The listeriosis outbreak had been confined to five older patients at one Kansas hospital between January 2014 and January 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Three of them died.
The Texas cases were discovered during an investigation into the Kansas outbreak, said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. The Texas patients recovered.
“We are actively working with the CDC to investigate and determine if there are more cases,” Williams said. “We are also working with the company to make sure they are producing ice cream that does not have contamination.”
The CDC report said the link between two Texas cases in 2011 and one in 2014 and the Kansas cases was made by laboratory testing of listeriosis samples stored in a database.
“Whole genome sequences of [the Texas] Listeria monocytogenes strains were nearly identical to Listeria strains isolated from ice cream produced at the Blue Bell Creameries’ Oklahoma facility,” the report says.
Williams would not say where the Texas patients were hospitalized, partly to protect their privacy, she said, and also because “there really isn’t a public health reason.”
When asked by reporters, Tarrant County Public Health officials acknowledged that one of the 2011 cases was here.
But Vinny Taneja, Tarrant County Public Health director, wasn’t ready to make the link to Blue Bell.
“They found a genetic link, [but] that doesn’t tell you 100 percent for sure this person ate Blue Bell ice cream,” he said.
Because ice cream has so many ingredients, Taneja said, one can’t simply point to the brand as a whole and say it caused the 2011 Tarrant County illness.
“For us to be very, very sure it’s the same thing, that person had to have told us that they ate the ice cream,” he said.
Officials could not explain how a listeriosis strain that sickened at least two people in 2011 survived without making other people sick until re-emerging in 2014. And they couldn’t say whether Blue Bell products have been tainted the whole time.
“Listeriosis is rare,” Williams said. “I think last year we had 19 cases. It primarily affects people who have weakened immune systems, who are older, pregnant. It’s not a common element.”
The Texas-based company issued a recall last month after the deaths at the Kansas hospital were reported. The illness was tracked to a production line at the company’s plant in Broken Arrow, Okla.
The company suspended operations there April 3.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that days after listeriosis was linked to Blue Bell products, a state inspection of the Oklahoma plant praised it for having no violations and doing a “great” job.
But an official with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry said Thursday that inspectors had no reason to check for listeria during the routine March 18 review.
Stan Stromberg, director of the department’s food safety division, said that no problems were detected and that the facility had no history of issues linked to the illness. He said his agency wasn’t notified until March 22 that listeria was connected to the plant.
The inspection report obtained by The Associated Press commends the facility for having no violations, noting “Great Job! Keep it up!”
Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792
What to watch for
Blue Bell products made at the Oklahoma plant have codes ending in O, P, Q, R, S and T.