The saga of Blue Bell ice cream continues. Food safety experts are wondering why Blue Bell Creameries, with headquarters in Brenham, Texas, took so long to respond to reports of listeria in some of its products. Listeria is a food-borne pathogen that can kill, in part because listeria poisoning can be hard to diagnose. It is particularly dangerous in the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women.
The presence of listeria in some of Blue Bell Creameries’ products was first discovered in February 2015. At that time, the company tried to recover the contaminated products quietly without issuing a recall. This approach, known as a withdrawal, does not require public notification or warnings and is commonly used for minor problems such as mislabeling. The Texas state health department found that this response was appropriate.
However, by mid-March the company had issued a national recall. The recall was prompted by a listeria outbreak at a hospital in Wichita, Kansas, that was traced to an ice cream product manufactured at the Brenham plant. Three patients died and two more became seriously ill at the hospital after consuming milkshakes that used the product.
Some Say Company’s Response to Listeria Inadequate
Some food safety experts have said that the company’s response to known listeria contamination was inadequate. By April, other instances of listeria contamination in Blue Bell products in other states forced the company to stop producing and distributing all ice cream products. Specialists quoted in news stories about the matter said they were not aware of any previous cases of listeria contamination that were addressed with a withdrawal rather than a recall.
However, an FDA spokesperson said that the withdrawal was an appropriate response at the time, affirming the position of the Texas health department. Unfortunately, a quiet withdrawal made it possible for vulnerable people to consume stored, contaminated product without knowing the dangers. Institutions like the Wichita hospital served it to patients, unaware of the withdrawal.
Blue Bell’s troubles are not unique. Four other ice cream manufacturers have recalled millions of pounds of ice cream contaminated with listeria in the past few months.
What’s the Matter With Ice Cream?
Why is ice cream so vulnerable? It turns out that listeria can live in deep freeze environments, while many other bacteria that cause food poisoning cannot. And that’s the thing about ice cream. It is kept in freezers for weeks and months at a time, with no effect on the bacteria that may be contaminating it.
There has been at least one product liability lawsuit filed against Blue Bell. A former Houston man who says that he fell into a coma after eating Blue Bell ice cream is seeking compensation for his medical costs. Whether Blue Bell, which has been in business since 1907 and sells ice cream in 27 states, will survive this blow is as yet unknown.