by: Gary Dinges, Claudia Grisales, Austin American-Statesman
A listeria scare has prompted Brenham-based Blue Bell Creameries and one of its vendors to issue a voluntary recall.
The recall affects about 2,000 cases of cookie dough produced last month that was sent to Blue Bell facilities in Brenham, Texas, and Sylacauga, Alabama, for inclusion in chocolate chip cookie dough and cookie two-step ice creams.
The ice cream being recalled was produced at the Alabama facility, Blue Bell said, and distributed in 10 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The supplier of the cookie dough used in the ice cream, Aspen Hills Inc., says there are “concerns” that listeria could be present. Listeria can be harmful or even fatal to children and those with compromised immune systems.
No illnesses have been reported so far, Aspen Hills and Blue Bell said.
Blue Bell, in a written statement, said it “identified a potential problem through intensified internal testing” and notified Aspen Hills.
“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,” the company said.
Blue Bell ice cream returned to local store shelves more than a year ago in the wake of the first recall in its history. But the 109-year-old company is facing 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 the closure of the company’s plants for several months.
Already, the rebuilding process could be years in the making. But despite the lingering concerns, executives with Brenham-based Blue Bell Creameries told the American-Statesman in an interview earlier this month that they remain optimistic about their outlook.
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 as many as 30 previously. And it has about 2,500 workers, down 36 percent from its previous 3,900-member workforce.
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.”
The company paid the state of Texas $175,000 on Aug. 22. 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.
While Blue Bell’s main plant in Brenham, Texas, 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 were aware of the recent findings by Texas health inspectors, and said those have already been addressed.
“Any time there is a concern found in our facility we take all appropriate corrective actions, ” the company said in a statement earlier this month. “The items listed on the Texas inspection report have been corrected.”
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