Blue Bell Creameries L.P. was recently ordered to pay more than $17 million in criminal penalties for shipping contaminated products linked to an outbreak of listeriosis in 2015.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman imposed the largest-ever criminal penalty following a conviction in a food safety case, according to a Sept. 17 news release from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
“The health of American consumers and the safety of our food are too important to be thwarted by the criminal acts of any individual or company,” Judy McMeekin, FDA’s associate commissioner for Regulatory Affairs, said in the release. “Americans expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity. We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who put the public health at risk by distributing contaminated foods in the U.S. marketplace.”
Blue Bell previously agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor counts and pay a criminal fine and forfeiture amount totaling $17.25 million. Texas-based Blue Bell further agreed to pay $2.1 million to resolve civil allegations under the False Claims Act related to ice cream products produced under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities, DOJ disclosed in a May 1 news release.
Blue Bell distributed ice cream products made under unsanitary conditions and contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, according to the plea agreement and criminal information filed against Blue Bell in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. The company agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products.
DOJ described Listeria monocytogenes as “a 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 previously observed its agreement with the government related to events that transpired five years ago, before the company shut down and revamped its production facilities and procedures.
“Last week’s court action closes a difficult chapter in Blue Bell’s history,” the company said Tuesday in an emailed statement. “We are a new, different and better Blue Bell. We learned hard lessons and turned them into determination to make the safest, most delicious ice cream available, with upgraded production facilities, training, safety procedures, and environmental and product testing programs.”
Added the company: “Food safety is our highest priority, and we know we must continue to be vigilant every day.”
The U.S. government concurred Blue Bell has improved its food safety operations. “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,” DOJ said in its recent news release.