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Three dead in Kansas after eating contaminated Blue Bell product

A sculpture of Belle the cow and her keeper stand outside Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham.
A sculpture of Belle the cow and her keeper stand outside Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham. Courtesy

Three patients at a Wichita, Kan., hospital have died and two others were sickened by listeriosis linked to ice cream from Blue Bell Creameries, resulting in the first product recall in the iconic Texas company’s 108-year history, authorities said Friday.

The recalled products came from one production line at the Blue Bell plant in Brenham, according to a statement from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Listeria bacteria were found in samples of Blue Bell Chocolate Chip Country Cookies, Great Divide Bars, Sour Pop Green Apple Bars, Cotton Candy Bars, Scoops, Vanilla Stick Slices, Almond Bars and No Sugar Added Moo Bars.

Four of the five hospital illnesses were traced to milkshakes made with Scoops.

Blue Bell said its regular Moo Bars were untainted, as were its half gallons, quarts, pints, cups, three-gallon ice cream and take-home frozen snack novelties.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said all five of the people sickened were receiving treatment for unrelated health issues at the hospital before developing listeriosis, “a finding that strongly suggests their infections [with listeria bacteria] were acquired in the hospital,” the CDC said.

Of those five, information was available from four on what foods they had eaten in the month before the infection. All four had consumed milkshakes made with Scoops, a single-serving Blue Bell ice cream product, while they were in the hospital, the CDC said.

Scoops, as well as the other suspect Blue Bell items, are mostly food service items and not produced for retail, said Paul Cruse, CEO of the creamery.

Routine testing

The Kansas City Star reported that the outbreak was discovered last month after routine laboratory testing by the Kansas health department found that two of the hospital patients had been infected with the same rare strain of listeria, health department spokeswoman Sara Belfry said.

The health department ran the strain through a federal database and discovered that it matched bacteria found by the South Carolina health department during a routine check of Blue Bell products at a distribution center, Belfry said. Texas health authorities then took samples from the Blue Bell plant and found the same bacterial contamination.

Belfry said Kansas health inspectors also compared the strain to that of other recent listeria cases in the state and found three more matches among three other patients at the hospital.

“Once we put all these pieces together, we’ve been working vigorously with the FDA and CDC,” Belfry said.

The five affected people were patients at Via Christi St. Francis hospital in Wichita, Kan., between December 2013 and January 2015, said hospital spokeswoman Maria Loving.

“Via Christi … immediately removed all Blue Bell Creameries products from all Via Christi locations once the potential contamination was discovered,” Loving said in a statement Friday to The Associated Press.

Via Christi has eight hospitals in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Mostly institutional

Blue Bell handles all of its own distribution and customer service, Cruse said, so it moved to pull suspect products from shelves, most of them institutional, as soon as it was alerted to the South Carolina contamination Feb. 13.

The contamination has been traced to a machine that extrudes the ice cream into forms and onto cookies, and that machine remains off-line, Cruse said.

All products now on store and institution shelves are safe and wholesome, Cruse said.

However, the CDC statement warned, “contaminated ice cream products may still be in the freezers of consumers, institutions, and retailers, given that these products can have a shelf life of up to 2 years.” Those products from the list should be disposed of.

Listeriosis is a life-threatening infection caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes, the CDC said. The disease primarily affects pregnant women and their newborns, older adults, and people with immune systems weakened by cancer, cancer treatments, or other serious conditions (such as diabetes, kidney failure, liver disease and HIV). Rarely are people without these risk factors affected.

A person with listeriosis usually has fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms. Almost everyone who is diagnosed with listeriosis has invasive infection, meaning the bacteria spread from their intestines to the blood, causing bloodstream infection, or to the central nervous system, causing meningitis. Although people can sometimes develop listeriosis up to 2 months after eating contaminated food, symptoms usually start within several days. Listeriosis is treated with antibiotics, the CDC said.

This report includes material from The Kansas City Star.

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