Nation & World

Blue Bell listeria deal may foreshadow regulatory changes

A billboard on U.S. 290 points the way to the Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham.
A billboard on U.S. 290 points the way to the Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham. The Dallas Morning News

Texas and Oklahoma health officials announced Thursday a set of testing and other measures that Blue Bell has agreed to take to ensure that its ice cream is safe before it can sell products from plants in those states.

The agreements represent a flexing of regulatory muscle after the revelation that Blue Bell, through its own tests, knew about listeria on floors and pallets as early as 2013 but did not extend listeria testing to its production lines.

Regulators said they didn’t know that until the Food and Drug Administration visited the plants this year after an outbreak with hospital patient deaths in Kansas and illnesses in multiple states.

Despite minor infractions like a dirty mop bucket, Texas inspectors had given Blue Bell glowing reports in past visits. Only when the FDA responded to the outbreak did federal inspectors note that condensation was dripping into pints of ice cream and sanitation programs were failing.

It’s unusual for state health departments to enter into this kind of agreement with a producer. And the measures announced Thursday mark an extraordinary departure from testing routines for both the company and the states. They don’t normally look for listeria in finished ice cream, but they will now.

“This was a special circumstance,” said Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, describing the agreement in an email.

“Blue Bell has been very cooperative, but we wanted to be firm and crystal clear in our requirements. We license and regulate the company and will hold them to the requirements. If they don’t comply, and we have no indication they won’t, we could use our regulatory powers to detain product, issue a cease and desist order or suspend the license.”

Voluntary deal

While the agreements show the states taking action — even while the outbreak investigation continues — they also demonstrate the company’s efforts to regain public confidence.

Blue Bell characterized the agreements as voluntary. After signing the deal in Texas, Blue Bell approached Oklahoma officials about having the same measures imposed on its plant in Broken Arrow, said Blayne Arthur, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

Blue Bell has initiated talks to enact the same agreement at its other plant, in Alabama, a spokesman for that state’s Department of Public Health said.

In a statement, Blue Bell CEO Paul Kruse said: “We are committed to meeting the high standards and expectations of our customers and our regulatory agencies. State and federal regulatory agencies play an important role in food safety, and we hope that it will be reassuring to our customers that we are working cooperatively with the states of Texas and Oklahoma in taking the necessary steps to bring Blue Bell Ice Cream back to the market.”

Return still months away

Kruse has said it will be months before sales resume.

Williams said it’s too soon to talk about regulatory changes or additional testing because no one knows how the ice cream became tainted with listeria.

But Thursday’s agreements could well provide a framework for those discussions and for voluntary changes at other ice cream producers. Dairy is one of the usual suspects for listeria outbreaks, but frozen desserts caught the spotlight only recently, partly because listeria lies dormant at freezing temperatures.

New technologies also make it easier to link tainted products to illnesses, even ones reported years ago, assuming the patient gave a blood or stool sample.

In 2008, the FDA recommended that food manufacturers test for listeria in finished products. But recent outbreaks tied to Snoqualmie Ice Cream in Washington state, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Ohio and Blue Bell show that the frozen-dessert industry hasn’t always followed suit.

Under the new agreements, Blue Bell must notify health officials at least two weeks before producing ice cream for sale so they can fully assess the company’s progress and test results.

The requirements include trial runs of ice cream that will be tested separately by the state and the company for listeria, and tests of food surfaces and machinery on production lines.

For at least two years, Blue Bell must report positive listeria tests within 24 hours. For at least one year, it must implement test-and-hold procedures, meaning that products must test clean before they can be sold.

Blue Bell will also retain a microbiologist to supervise cleaning and testing programs.