Frozen confection enthusiasts in some states woke up to unsettling news last week as we discovered that Blue Bell Creameries issued another recall relating to Listeria monocytogenes. Blue Bell announced its most recent recall a mere few months after the year anniversary of the Listeriosis outbreak that lead to ten hospitalizations and three deaths. Blue Bell has slowly made a return to the frozen dessert market, but this latest recall may lead to more setbacks.

Blue Bell and Listeria monocytogenes – A History

In February of 2015, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control conducted a routine inspection of Blue Bell products, Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and Great Divide Bars. When the agency found and isolated Listeria monocytogenes in its samples, they communicated their findings to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The Texas agency commenced its own inspection, this time of Blue Bell’s Brenham, Texas facility. When the Texas agency found similar Listeria monocytogenes isolated to those found in South Carolina, in the same products, the agency proceeded with serotyping of the bacteria. As a result, the Texas Department of State Health Services found seven different serotype patterns of the bacteria.

The following month, in March of 2015, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported that they had discovered two hospitalized victims bore the same Listeria monocytogenes patterns in their samples to those found by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Soon, the agency discovered three additional hospitalized victims bearing the same pattern of the isolates. The victims reported to have ingested Blue Bell products, namely its “Scoops” product line.

On March 13, 2015, Blue Bell Creameries shut down its production line at its Brenham, Texas facility.

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On March 22, 2015, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment discovered that 3 ounce chocolate ice cream cups made at the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma facility yielded positive results for Listeria monocytogenes.

On April 3, 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that they had concerns that products made at Blue Bell’s Broken Arrow, Oklahoma facility may be the source of some Listeriosis illnesses. They did not have evidence to create the link at the time. Whole genome sequencing, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed the link on April 8, 2015.

On April 20, 2015, Blue Bell Creameries issued its first voluntary recall on every single product they had on retail shelves. Blue Bell’s recall, at that time, included ice cream, sherbet, sorbet, frozen snacks, and yogurt products. Initially, the company commented that the decision to announce the recall came after it tested the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream half gallons made between March 17, 2015 and March 27, 2015. When testing showed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes, Blue Bell tested their other facilities and plants. The enormity of the recall forced the company to test all of its plants and facilities – which lead to the discovery of a massive contamination. Upon the discovery of several other positive tests involving Listeria monocytogenes, Blue Bell announced a company-wide recall of products and shut down its operations. At the time, company Chief Executive Officer and President Paul Kruse issued this public statement:

“We’re committed to doing the 100 percent right thing, and the best way to do that is to take all of our products off the market until we can be confident that they are all safe. We are heartbroken about this situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers. Our entire history has been about making the very best and highest quality ice cream and we intend to fix this problem. We want enjoying our ice cream to be a source of joy and pleasure, never a cause for concern, so we are committed to getting this right.”

To say the recall was massive, is putting it lightly. Blue Bell Creameries recalled all products in 24 states and even international locations, including – Anguilla, Belize, Bermuda, Chile, China, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Haiti, Jordan, Kuwait, Mexico, Montserrat, Oman, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Qatar, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saudi Arabia, Tortola, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, St. Croix, St. Thomas and Yemen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed the outbreak over on June 10, 2015.

Blue Bell Creameries did not re-commence production until November of 2015. Even when production recommenced, they were slow to roll out one flavor at a time, starting only in Texas. This process has led many consumers to joke that there was a “Blue Bell drought” and created a grassroots phenomenon of those who support Blue Bell. As of the date of this post, Blue Bell has not re-produced all 66 of its flavors to the retail market and has not returned to all of the states in its previous territory.

Investigation and Solving the Mystery

Blue Bell Creameries further announced their methods in which they were to implement to find the source of the contamination. In April of 2015, they created a new protocol, coined the “test and hold” system, wherein they guaranteed to hold all products after manufacturing and to test those products for safety prior to releasing them for retail sale. The company truly believed this was the first step to solving the problem. Mr. Kruse commented:

“At every step, we have made decisions in the best interest of our customers based on the evidence we had available at the time. At this point, we cannot say with certainty how Listeria was introduced to our facilities and so we have taken this unprecedented step. We continue to work with our team of experts to eliminate this problem.”

Over the course of a few weeks, the United States Food and Drug Administration conducted inspections into Blue Bell Creameries’ production facilities in Brenham, Texas, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and Sylacauga, Alabama.  On May 7, 2015, the agency released its findings. Some of the findings cited: (1) “failure to manufacture foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential for growth of microorganisms”, (2) “procedure used for cleaning and sanitizing of equipment has not been shown to provide adequate cleaning and sanitizing treatment”, (3) “the plant is not constructed in such a manner as to prevent condensate form contaminating food and food-contact surfaces”, among others. For the full reports, you can visit the United States Food and Drug Administration website here. It all came down to preventable issues.

What Now?

Blue Bell is not taking full blame for the latest recall and have made strides to keep the recall as low-key as possible. The company announced that they blame their cookie dough supplier, Aspen Hills, Inc., for the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in its Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Cookie Two Step ice cream flavors.

Aspen Hills, Inc. issued its own recall on almost 2,000 cases of cookie dough it produced for various food companies, including school fundraisers. However, Aspen Hill, Inc.’s recall notice did not list Blue Bell Creameries as a linked food company.

Blue Bell mentions on its website that they identified the problem through their intense new testing protocols at their Sylacauga, Alabama facility and immediately advised Aspen Hills, Inc. of their concerns. Blue Bell was quick to ensure the public of the effectiveness of their new safety protocols, and issued the following statement:

“Although our products in the marketplace have passed our test and hold program, which requires that finished product samples test negative for Listeria monocytogenes, Blue Bell is initiating this recall out of an abundance of caution. This recall is being conducted in cooperation with the FDA.”

The products involved in the recall, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Cookie Two Step, were sold in half gallons and pints by retailers in ten states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. You can identify the product by the code date at the bottom of the carton. The company confirmed that Texas is not on the list of effected states.

For more information about the product and the recall, you can visit Blue Bell Creameries’ website here.

The company and government agencies advise consumers to immediately stop consumption of the recalled products. If you believe that you or someone you love may be ill after ingesting any products from Blue Bell Creameries or Aspen Hills, Inc., you are encouraged to seek immediate medical attention. For more information on Listeriosis or Listeria monocytogenes, you can visit our post on the subject here.

To date, the company and state agencies have not reported any illnesses linked to this recall.