“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … ” So begins “A Tale of Two Cities,” the famous novel by Charles Dickens about events leading up to the French Revolution. While two ice cream companies’ recent recalls pale in relative significance to world history, they loom large in the world of food safety for how each was handled and what might happen next.
Blue Bell Creameries is a private, family-owned company based in Brenham, TX. Started in 1907, the company has been in business for 108 years. It manufactures and distributes a wide range of products — ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt and other frozen treats — to a swath of 23 mainly southern and midwestern states, including retail establishments and institutions. It is considered one of the top three best-selling ice cream brands in the country.
Blue Bell has about 3,800 employees and four production facilities — two in Brenham, one in Broken Arrow, OK, and one in Sylacauga, AL. The CEO is Paul Kruse, a lawyer and grandson of the company’s founder, E.F. Kruse. Forty percent of Blue Bell stock is held by employees, and the company has reportedly never had a layoff.
A key player in the local economy, Blue Bell is the second-largest employer in Brenham, a town of about 16,000 people located about halfway between Houston and Austin.
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is a medium-sized privately owned firm based in Columbus, OH. Established in 2002 by artist and pastry chef Jeni Britton Bauer, it has about 600 employees working at the company’s main production facility in Columbus or in about 20 scoop shops spread throughout several states and in a selection of major cities.
Jeni’s produces ice cream, sorbet, frozen yogurt, ice cream sandwiches and toppings and makes an effort to locally source as many ingredients as possible. Besides selling its products at the scoop shops, the company ships product out nationwide via 1,700 wholesale distribution points. The CEO is John Lowe, a lawyer and longtime friend of Bauer’s, who joined the company in 2009.
While both companies enjoy strong brand loyalty, their growth strategies differ. Blue Bell is said to favor a slow and steady pace of growth and thoroughly investigates a new area before making any expansion decisions.
Jeni’s recently moved its corporate offices to downtown Columbus and reportedly has been considering relocating its production facilities to a 17,000-square-foot building nearby. Such a move would triple the company’s current production kitchen space.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Listeria monocytogenes bacteria are commonly found in soil and water and can contaminate foods of animal origin such as meats and dairy products.
Listeria bacteria are found in uncooked meats and vegetables, raw milk and cheeses and other foods made from unpasteurized milk, and cooked or processed foods including soft cheeses, processed meats and smoked seafood.
Unlike most bacteria, Listeria can grow and multiply on some foods in colder temperatures that would kill less-hardy pathogens. Once Listeria gains a foothold in a food processing facility, it can be very difficult to control, let alone eradicate.
Listeriosis, the disease caused by infection with Listeria bacteria, primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. Symptoms typically include fever, fatigue, headache and confusion, and listeriosis can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. Treatment mainly consists of antibiotics.
CDC estimates there are approximately 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis each year in the U.S., making Listeria one of the deadliest foodborne pathogens out there.
The public first learned about potential problems with Listeria in Blue Bell products on March 13, 2015, after the deaths of three people hospitalized in Kansas were linked to single-serve ice cream scoops and milkshakes made with them. Blue Bell said it was removing the products from the market and shutting down the related production line, noting that this was the first recall in the company’s long history.
(The most recent case count from CDC posted April 21 stated that 10 people in four states have been hospitalized with listeriosis linked to Blue Bell products. Five of those people were in Kansas, three in Texas, and one each in Arizona and Oklahoma, with onset dates ranging from January 2010 through January 2015.)
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the bacteria were found in Blue Bell products during routine sampling at a South Carolina distribution center on Feb. 12, and the products were manufactured at the company’s Brenham plant.
The Texas Department of State Health Services subsequently collected product samples from the Brenham facility. These samples yielded Listeria monocytogenes from the same products tested in South Carolina and a third single-serving ice cream product, Scoops, which was made on the same production line.
Further sampling of single-serving chocolate ice cream cups made at the Broken Arrow, OK, facility indicated the presence of Listeria, and state and federal health officials told Blue Bell officials about what they found. This came after an “enhanced sampling program” that found half-gallon containers of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream produced on March 17 and March 27 contained the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, company officials said.
Blue Bell then announced a second recall on March 23 of three flavors of 3-ounce ice cream cups with tab lids (chocolate, strawberry and vanilla). On April 3, the company said it had suspended operations at the Oklahoma facility.
FDA notified Blue Bell on April 7 that Listeria was also found in samples of Banana Pudding ice cream pints made at the Oklahoma plant, and the company then expanded its recall to additional products manufactured there between Feb. 12 and March 27, 2015.
Finally, on April 20, Kruse announced that all of the company’s products from all of its plants were being recalled and that the four facilities were being temporarily shut down until the problem could be identified and a solution found.
“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,” Kruse said in a videotaped announcement. “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.”
Since the recall, Blue Bell initiated what Kruse called “a fresh start” involving 750 employees and supervisors going through a new training program and the four company plants undergoing an intensive cleaning, sanitizing and maintenance regime.
Listeria was first found in a pint of Jeni’s dark chocolate ice cream in a random sample tested by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and later in a pint of Jeni’s The Buckeye State ice cream (salted peanut butter and dark chocolate).
Lowe announced April 23 that all Jeni’s products on retailer shelves were being recalled and the company’s scoop shops were being closed until the problem could be fixed.
The next day, April 24, Lowe revealed that hundreds of samples from swab-testing at Jeni’s production kitchen in Columbus had been tested by a private lab and a FDA lab, and that the presence of Listeria was indicated.
“We will not reopen the production kitchen until we are emphatically sure it is clean of Listeria,” Lowe said. “Beyond that, we will not open the production kitchen until we know we have the proper new systems in place to ensure this problem is never repeated. To that end, we are retaining an expert who will spend next week with us implementing new procedures for how our production kitchen operates and for instituting post-production testing protocols.”
In an April 28 update, Lowe said Jeni’s has destroyed 265 tons of ice cream at a cost to the company of more than $2.5 million.
Blue Bell has not yet announced how much product it plans to destroy nor what it estimates the recall is likely to cost. Some production reportedly continues at the Alabama plant, but a Blue Bell spokeswoman said that it was for research and testing purposes only.
Officials with both companies say they do not intend to lay off any workers during these difficult times. Blue Bell officials have said that the company has not laid off any employees in its 100-year history and doesn’t intend to start now, while Lowe indicated that Jeni’s was cutting expenses wherever possible in order to avoid laying anyone off and that the company would maintain health benefits for its workers.
Previous Listeria outbreaks
Other food companies have wrestled with Listeria contamination in their manufacturing facilities and survived to tell the tale. One was Maple Leaf Foods of Toronto, Canada, which had a Listeria outbreak in 2008 linked to consumption of prepackaged cold cuts.
By the time that outbreak was over, 22 people out of 56 total confirmed listeriosis cases had died, and the company had reportedly spent more than $20 million between the recall and cleaning up and disinfecting its production facility.
The Canadian government’s followup report found that inadequate communication between the company and food safety inspectors had contributed to the problem, and that more funding, better public information, and improved detection and tracking processes were needed.
More recently, a Listeria outbreak in 2011-2012 linked to cantaloupe from Jensen Brothers Farms near Holly, CO, sickened 147 people in 28 states, resulting in the deaths of 33 people and 10 who later died.
Eric and Ryan Jensen pleaded guilty to six federal misdemeanors in October 2013, including introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce and criminal aiding and abetting. They were each sentenced to five years probation and six months home detention, $150,000 in restitution and 100 hours of community service. Their farm operation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Both Blue Bell and Jeni’s are spending a lot of time, effort and money on eradicating the cause of their respective recalls, disinfecting their manufacturing facilities, and retraining their employees. Both companies indicate they are determined to resume production and return to serving their customers.
Inevitably, serious questions remain. How did Listeria get into products made at two different Blue Bell plants? How did Listeria get into Jeni’s production facility? And, perhaps most important going forward, how much will fallout from these recalls hurt public confidence in the companies’ products and, consequently, their bottom lines? And that’s not even factoring in potential victim lawsuits.
The impact of these recalls on routine food safety practices industry-wide is another open question. Ice cream is typically checked for bacteria colony counts and maybe Salmonella and perhaps other contaminants, depending on the lab, but it isn’t routinely tested for Listeria. That could change now, at least for some manufacturers.
“It’s never 100-percent free of spoilage when you’re talking about ice cream,” said Darryl David, an ice cream and dairy consultant in St. Petersburg, FL, in an interview with Food Safety News. “A lot of the big plants don’t check for Listeria. Will the Department of Ag start requiring it? You betcha.”
David said that the focus in ice cream plants should be on training, food safety and common sanitation practices.
“This is about food safety, the sanitation program, shutting down the machine and checking it, and what is the supervisor doing? What is the plant manager doing? You isolated the problem. Really? Then why is it turning up in other plants?” he said.
Consumer trust is a tricky affair. Nobody likes to see a favorite brand name tarnished, and nobody wants to worry about a treat such as ice cream harboring dangerous pathogens. What can a company do to win back customers after a recall?
“I have a lot of friends in Texas, and they say [Blue Bell] almost has a cult-like following,” Jonathan Bernstein, a Los Angeles-based crisis management consultant, told Food Safety News. “They have established a cushion of good will over 100 years. It will take more than a recall to impact that cushion of good will.”
Bernstein added that Blue Bell could have done a better and faster job of getting information out about the recall, but because of dedicated customers, the company is likely to survive this recall if no other problems occur in the next couple of years.
As for Jeni’s, Bernstein called the company’s initial response to the first positive Listeria test “technically perfect.”
“They said we don’t know if anybody’s gotten sick, but we’re recalling everything, and they did it quick,” he said. “In terms of response, they did the best possible thing they could do, and that kind of communication component of a recall is the cheapest part of it. It’s just a question of doing the right thing, and they did.”© Food Safety News