Blue Bell Creameries has had a really bad month. Not only did they just have to pay a $19 million fine for causing a 2015 listeria outbreak (and trying to cover it up), but it looks like one of their employees has now tested positive for COVID-19. Double yikes! What exactly does this mean for Blue Bell? People who love their ice cream are worried that the company will shut down their plant — again.
Inside Blue Bell's ice cream contamination drama: First, the listeria outbreak.
Blue Bell, which is based out of Brenham, Texas, first ran into major issues in 2015, when the manufacturing plant found traces of listeria in its products. The company shut down their operations, furloughed their employees, and drastically reduced the amount of states that could carry the ice cream (which is probably why you noticed that Blue Bell ice cream suddenly disappeared from the frozen aisle). Production rebooted three months later, but it took a while before distribution of the ice cream went back to normal.
According to CNN, 10 people were infected from compromised Blue Bell ice cream, and three people died. Four of the infected had consumed milkshakes made with Blue Bell ice cream. "We are devastated and know that Blue Bell has to be and can be better than this. Quality and safety have always been our top priorities. We are deeply saddened and concerned for all those who have been affected," Paul Kruse, Blue Bell CEO and president stated at the time.
Later that year, former employees spoke up about the unsanitary conditions at the Brenham Blue Bell factory, which exposed an even more serious issue than anyone thought. The listeria may not have been a fluke at an otherwise clean and protocol-following plant — apparently, the ice cream factory had been disregarding basic sanitation rules for awhile. The Blue Bell veterans told CBS that there was a "bad side" to the ice cream company.
One shared, "A lot of times when I walked in there was just ice cream all over the floor. Sometimes the machines would just go haywire, the product would just continually run through the conveyor belt and just drop right onto the floor." After bringing this up to a supervisor, the source said, "The response I got at one point was, 'is that all you're going to do is come here and b*tch every afternoon?'" He added, "It's all about the money." Apparently he was also instructed to take ice cream and fruit juice that dribbled off the machine all day long and put it back into barrels to be used for ice cream.
Another employee said that these practices had been stopped a year before the listeria outbreak, but that the plant still had issues. Including the fact that there was moisture and water everywhere, and that's precisely where listeria thrives. Another source said, "[Water] on the wall, by the three-gallon machine. It had rained real hard and water sat on the roof, it would just trickle down. We had a couple of times where it actually flooded the area, to where they had to cut their machines off because there was too much water over there."
What was even scarier, was that the Blue Bell factory never seemed to have a proper inspection. All employees were warned ahead of time before an official would show up to inspect the plant. One source told CBS, "We never, the whole time I was there, had a surprise inspection. As soon as Army pulled up in the parking lot, the phone calls start. Everyone knows right away, which would give you about a 15- or 20-minute window."
Early this May, Listeria was fined $19.3 million and pled guilty to two misdemeanors.
According to CNN, Blue Bell Creameries "agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing contaminated ice cream products in 2015 and pay a criminal fine of $17.25 million." The ice cream company also had to pay $2.1 million in order to settle civil claims about their unsanitary factory conditions. Additionally, their former CEO Paul Kruse was charged with seven felony counts, "including conspiracy and attempted wire fraud, for allegedly telling Blue Bell employees to remove potentially contaminated products from store freezers without notifying retailers or consumers about the reason for the withdrawal."
Let's not forget the Blue Bell ice cream-licking criminals.
In late June 2019, a teen was caught licking Blue Bell ice cream at the grocery store and putting the contaminated tub back in the freezer, and the footage went viral. Luckily, the Texas police found her. Since she was only 17, she didn't face prison charges.
This sparked some criticism over how Blue Bell doesn't seal their ice cream containers. The company explained, "During production, our half gallons are flipped upside down and sent to a hardening room where the ice cream freezes to create a natural seal," the statement continued. "The lids are frozen tightly to the carton. Any attempt at opening the product should be noticeable."
Unfortunately, the whole incident sparked an internet challenge, because the world is sometimes a very disappointing place. People from all over started filming themselves licking ice cream and then putting it back on the shelves at the store. Some of the individuals participating in the "challenge" faced jail time, though.
And THEN: On May 20, a Blue Bell employee tested positive for COVID-19.
As if things couldn't get much worse for Blue Bell, today, an employee who worked at the Texas factory tested positive for coronavirus. Blue Bell states that the employee is at home, quarantined, and getting the medical help they need. The ice cream company said they traced back to all employees the infected individual could have been in contact with, and instructed them to stay home for 14 days as well. Additionally, they'll be deep-cleaning their factory.
Even after everything Blue Bell has gone through, the brand still has a lot of devoted fans who are super upset by this news.
All we can say is...at least there's Ben & Jerry's.