Blue Bell pleads guilty, agrees to pay $19.35 million for ice cream listeria contamination

Blue Bell pleads guilty, agrees to pay $19.35 million for ice cream listeria contamination
Blue Bell plant (Source: KCBD File Photo)

LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - Blue Bell will be paying $19.35 million in fines and their former president, Paul Kruse, has been charged with seven felony counts alleging that he attempted to cover up what the company knew about a listeria outbreak in 2015.

The United States Department of Justice released the details of the agreement on Friday:

"In a plea agreement filed with a criminal information in federal court in Austin, Texas, Blue Bell agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products and pay a criminal fine and forfeiture amount totaling $17.25 million. Blue Bell also agreed to pay an additional $2.1 million to resolve civil False Claims Act allegations regarding ice cream products manufactured under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities. The total $19.35 million in fine, forfeiture, and civil settlement payments constitutes the second largest-ever amount paid in resolution of a food-safety matter."

Blue Bell temporarily closed all of its plants in late April 2015 to clean and update the facilities.

The DOJ did acknowledge, "Since re-opening its facilities in late 2015, Blue Bell has taken significant steps to enhance sanitation processes and enact a program to test products for listeria prior to shipment."

“Today we are a new, different and better Blue Bell. Our agreement with the government involves events that took place five years ago before we shut down and revamped our production facilities and procedures. Since resuming production in the summer of 2015, we test our ice cream and deliver it to stores only after independent tests confirm it is safe.”

DOJ laid out the chain of events in their official statement:

“Texas state officials notified Blue Bell in February 2015 that two ice cream products from the company’s Brenham, Texas factory tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous pathogen that can lead to serious illness or death in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, newborns, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.”

“Blue Bell directed its delivery route drivers to remove remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, but the company did not recall the products or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential listeria contamination. Two weeks after receiving notification of the first positive listeria tests, Texas state officials informed Blue Bell that additional testing confirmed listeria in a third product. Blue Bell again chose not to issue any formal notification to customers regarding the positive tests.”

“In March 2015, tests conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked the strain of listeria in one of the Blue Bell ice cream products to a strain that sickened five patients at a Kansas hospital with listeriosis, the severe illness caused by ingestion of listeria-contaminated food.”

“The FDA, CDC, and Blue Bell all issued public recall notifications on March 13, 2015. Subsequent tests confirmed listeria contamination in a product made at another Blue Bell facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, which led to a second recall announcement on March 23, 2015.”

"According to the allegations filed against Kruse, Blue Bell's former president allegedly orchestrated a scheme to deceive certain Blue Bell customers after he learned that products from the company's Texas factory tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. Kruse specifically is asserted to have directed other Blue Bell employees to remove potentially contaminated products from store freezers without notifying retailers or consumers about the real reason for the withdrawal. Kruse also is alleged to have directed employees to tell customers who asked why products were removed that there had been an unspecified issue with a manufacturing machine instead of that samples of the products had tested positive for listeria."

The criminal charges against Kruse are still pending as of May 1, 2020.

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