- Gary Dinges American-Statesman Staff
More than a year after Blue Bell ice cream returned to local store shelves in the wake of the first recall in its history, business for the iconic Texas brand appears almost back to normal.
But a deeper look shows the 109-year-old company still faces an uphill battle after federal officials linked it to a listeria outbreak last year that sickened 10 people and led to three deaths, triggering the recall of 8 million gallons of ice cream and a closure for a few months of the company’s plants.
The rebuilding process could be years in the making. But despite the lingering concerns, executives with Brenham-based Blue Bell Creameries Inc. say they remain optimistic.
“We are positive about the future,” company spokesman Joe Robertson told the American-Statesman. “The consumers and retailers have been very supportive, and we can’t thank them enough.”
There are plenty of hurdles ahead: An ongoing federal criminal investigation. Possible new fines. Meeting tighter regulatory benchmarks. And regrowing from a reduced footprint in operations and workforce.
Today, Blue Bell is operating in 16 states, compared with the 23 states where it sold ice cream products prior to its 2015 recall. It now sells 25 flavors, versus the as many as 30 flavors sold previously. And it has about 2,500 workers, down 36 percent from its previous 3,900-member workforce.
But Blue Bell has also come a long way since the summer of 2015, when industry experts questioned whether the company would survive.
In the midst of the recall, more than 2,800 of Blue Bell’s employees had been laid off or furloughed, and losses related to the listeria recall were estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some experts predicted the company’s sales could plunge as much as 50 percent. As a private company, Blue Bell doesn’t disclose sales figures. Trade publications, though, estimated its annual sales were as high as $800 million before the recall.
In the aftermath, Blue Bell spent a great deal of money cleaning, repairing and replacing manufacturing equipment at its plants. It has faced at least two related lawsuits, which have been settled for undisclosed sums. And the company was fined up to $850,000 in July by the Texas Department of State Health Services after the state said Blue Bell “allowed adulterated product to enter the marketplace and cause illness.”
“We continue to work closely and cooperatively with our state and federal regulators,” Robertson said. “Regulators have visited each of our ice cream processing facilities on a regular basis since we resumed production. We believe that working closely with our regulators is an important part of ensuring that we are producing safe product.”
The company paid the state of Texas $175,000 on Aug. 22, state health agency spokesman Chris Van Deusen said. The rest of the fine won’t have to be paid as long as Blue Bell adheres to conditions outlined in an agreement with state regulators that allowed the company to resume production.
“DSHS continues to monitor Blue Bell’s production in Texas, and the company is currently meeting its obligations under our enforcement agreement,” Van Deusen said.
Health officials in Alabama and Oklahoma, where Blue Bell also has production facilities, said they haven’t imposed fines on the company. The Alabama Department of Public Health doesn’t have the authority to levy fines on food processing facilities, a spokesman said, while Oklahoma Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese told the Statesman his agency hasn’t wrapped up its investigation.
“We have not fined them,” Reese said. “It is a possibility. Blue Bell was prompt to remove adulterated product, they cooperated with cleaning, remodeling and restructuring their processes to guard against future adulteration. We are proud of the improvements made with the cooperation with all agencies involved. We just haven’t closed the case yet.”
While Blue Bell’s main plant in Brenham has far fewer issues than in the past, Texas health inspectors are still finding some causes for concern, according to documents filed by the state. An August inspection report obtained by the Statesman shows “a ceiling leak, caulking that needed repair, a vessel that needs to be sloped to the drain and a vessel that had the potential for condensation to drip into it.”
Overhead pipes leaking into vats of ice cream is one theory some food safety experts have floated for how listeria bacteria might have previously spread in Blue Bell facilities, although that theory was never confirmed.
Blue Bell executives said they are aware of the recent findings by Texas health inspectors, and say those have already been addressed.
“Any time there is a concern found in our facility we take all appropriate corrective actions,” the company said. “The items listed on the Texas inspection report have been corrected.”
One of the biggest hurdles facing Blue Bell is an ongoing federal criminal investigation, said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer who is an expert on foodborne-illness cases.
Marler settled his own legal case against Blue Bell on behalf of a Florida man this year for an undisclosed sum. This month, lawyers representing a Houston man, who has since moved to Maryland to seek treatment for his illness, confirmed their case was also settled.
“From a legal perspective, they really dodged a bullet,” Marler said. “But there is a criminal investigation going on. And from my perspective, that is the biggest problem that Blue Bell faces.”
In December, various media outlets reported that the U.S. Justice Department was investigating Blue Bell’s listeria outbreak, which could lead to criminal charges against involved workers or executives and company fines.
Blue Bell declined to comment on any legal matters, but confirmed that it is cooperating with the federal investigation.
“No one wants to see someone go to jail, no one wants to see someone fined,” Marler said. “But no one also wants to see someone die from a food product.”
Blue Bell’s predicament certainly caught the attention of other food processing companies, said Suresh D. Pillai, a Texas A&M University microbiology professor.
“The food industry as a whole is now in a critical stage,” he said. “This is partly because criminal proceedings are being brought against food industry execs. Secondly, technology … platforms are completely changing the way pathogens are being detected, characterized and traced.
“Companies cannot wish away microbial pathogen hazards in their operations. It’s very difficult to generalize because there are companies that have understood the writing on the wall and have started incorporating advanced technologies into their workflow, but a majority of companies — many of them small — do not have the in-house expertise or resources to be able to get on board with these advances.”
Aside from the financial and potential legal hits, Blue Bell’s reputation has taken a hit as a result of the listeria recall. Erik Hernandez, a partner at Tilted Chair Creative, an Austin advertising agency, said it was eye-opening for many consumers to learn the company that markets itself as a small country creamery was actually a large, multimillion-dollar business.
“While I think the recall and re-entry have been handled well, I think Blue Bell took on a little too much of a corporate tone during this entire situation,” Hernandez said. “I don’t think Blue Bell stayed true to the brand’s small-town personality when communicating the listeria recall to the public.
“People like myself love Blue Bell. We want to forgive the little old lady in the country making delicious ice cream. People have forgiven, or at least forgotten about, much worse recalls like Ford, Firestone or Tylenol,” Hernandez said. “It seems clear that people have already forgiven Blue Bell for the recall and embraced its comeback. Unfortunately, I think people won’t be as quick to forgive Blue Bell for bursting their belief in the little old lady churning delicious ice cream for all to enjoy.”