Blue Bell Creameries L.P., the ice cream maker tied to an outbreak of listeriosis in 2015, agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor counts and pay a criminal fine and forfeiture amount totaling $17.25 million, according to a May 1 news release from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
Texas-based Blue Bell further agreed to pay $2.1 million to resolve allegations under the False Claims Act related to ice cream products produced under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities.
Combined, the payments represent “the second largest-ever amount paid in resolution of a food-safety matter,” DOJ divulged.
Blue Bell distributed ice cream products made under insanitary 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 announced.
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.”
According to the plea agreement, Texas officials in February 2015 advised Blue Bell that two of its products tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, but the company failed to recall the products or alert consumers—though it did direct its delivery route drivers to remove remaining stocks of the products from store shelves. Two weeks after receiving the initial notice, state officials advised the company that additional testing confirmed listeria in a third product, yet Blue Bell did not issue any formal notification to customers regarding the positive tests, DOJ alleged.
“American consumers rely on food manufacturers to take necessary steps to provide products that are safe to eat,” Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of DOJ’s Civil Division said in a statement. “The Department of Justice will take appropriate action where food manufacturers ignore poor factory conditions or fail to abide by required recall procedures when problems are discovered.”
In a statement, Blue Bell observed its agreement with the government relates to events that transpired five years ago before the company shut down and revamped its 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,” the company said.
In 2015, the statement noted, Blue Bell faced a situation that it had never before encountered, “and our agreement with the government reflects that we should have handled many things differently and better. We apologize to everyone who was impacted, including our customers, our employees and the communities where we live and work.”
In a related criminal case announced by DOJ, Blue Bell’s former president, Paul Kruse, was charged with seven felony counts related to his alleged efforts to conceal from customers what the company knew about the listeria contamination.
Kruse allegedly directed other employees to remove potentially contaminated products from store freezers without alerting consumers or retailers about the actual reason for those actions. According to DOJ’s news release, he also directed employees to inform customers who asked about the removal of products that the withdrawal was tied to an “unspecified issue with a manufacturing machine” rather than due to positive tests for listeria.
Chris Flood, an attorney representing Kruse, said it was unfortunate charges were leveled against his client following a five-year federal grand jury investigation.
“We look forward to telling the whole story of how my client along with all of the other employees of Blue Bell did the best they could with the information they had at the time,” he said in an emailed statement. “Paul Kruse is innocent of these charges, and we have confidence that a Texas jury will see it that way and let Blue Bell get back to making the best ice cream in America.”