FDA Investigators: Blue Bell Found Bacteria Issues At Production Facilities Two Years Ago, Failed To Act

(Kusine)

(Kusine)

A few weeks ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the current Blue Bell listeria outbreak that has been linked to three deaths and at least 10 illness in four states to illnesses that occurred at least five years ago. Now, federal investigators claim the Texas-based ice cream maker knew of bacteria problems at its plants nearly two years ago, but failed to do anything about it.

The Houston Chronicle reports that recently released documents [PDF] from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration show Blue Bell’s own repeated testing programs found traces of listeria at the company’s Broken Arrow, OK plant.

According to the FDA, the testing, which included five samples in 2013, 10 in 2014 and two in 2015, found traces of listeria on floors, pallets used to store and carry ingredients and other non-food-contact surfaces at the plant.

Despite the repeated findings, the company allegedly did nothing to find the cause of the contamination, or further check surfaces that do come into contact with the ice cream products.

Tests in 2014 and 2015 indicated high levels of coliform – another kind of bacteria – along the entire production process, violating the limits under Oklahoma law, the Chronicle reports.

Recent FDA inspections of Blue Bell plants – occurring after the outbreak was first announced in March – found dirty conditions including condensation inside the plant dripping into ice cream containers, cleaning water that wasn’t hot enough, dirty pallets with “mold-like residue and red stains,” and black “mold-like material” on equipment used to freeze ice cream.

Additionally, the inspection found that procedures used by the company to clean and sanitize equipment and surfaces was not adequate.

“Specifically, you failed to demonstrate your cleaning and sanitizing program is effective in controlling recurring microbiological contaminations,” the report states. “You continued to have presumptive positive environmental test results for Listeria and elevated total coliform results following the daily cleaning and sanitizing treatments of your equipment and facilities.”

Food safety consultant Larry Keener tells the Chronicle that in a routine inspection, FDA representatives might not include such issues in its report.

“But given the outbreak, the scrutiny is intensified, and every item or infraction, small or large, is noted,” he says.

While the issues described above occurred at the Oklahoma plant, which was temporarily closed earlier this spring, the FDA reported similar issues at two other plants in Alabama [PDF] and Texas [PDF]. Those plants have also been closed.

Despite the findings by the FDA, investigators say they still haven’t determined how listeria actually entered the ice cream, leading to the outbreak and massive recall.

Officials with Blue Bell confirm that company testing found issues starting in 2013.

“Several swab tests did show the presence of listeria on nonfood surfaces in Blue Bell’s Broken Arrow (Oklahoma) plant in 2013,” company spokesman Joe Robertson said in an email. “As is standard procedure for any such positive results, the company would immediately clean the surfaces and swab until the tests were negative. We thought our cleaning process took care of any problems, but in hindsight, it was not adequate, which is why we are currently conducting such a comprehensive re-evaluation of all our operations.”

The company says it is preparing detailed responses to the FDA findings and plans to take steps to upgrade testing and employee training.

In a separate statement on Thursday, Blue Bell announced it doesn’t expect its ice cream products to return to retailer shelves for several more months, the Montgomery Advertiser reports.

“The extensive and detailed process of updating, cleaning and sanitizing our four production facilities, as well as training employees and implementing new programs and procedures, will take longer than we initially anticipated,” the company said in a statement. “Each facility will have its own timetable and production may resume in some locations before others.”

The company, which has recalled more than 8 million gallons of ice cream since March, says that ensuring products are safe is of the utmost priority, even if that means shelves remain empty for several more months.

“Unfortunately, we do not yet have a firm timeline for when Blue Bell ice cream will be back in stores, but we believe at this time that it will be several months at a minimum,” Paul Kruse, Blue Bell CEO and President, said in a statement.

Blue Bell Ice Cream won’t return soon [Montgomery Advertiser]
FDA: Blue Bell knew of listeria, didn’t correct problems [Houston Chronicle]