Four months after a total product recall, Blue Bell Creameries plans to begin distributing its ice cream to select markets (mainly in southern states) two weeks from today.
A company statement posted Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, indicates that Blue Bell officials have notified the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and state health officials in Alabama and Texas of their plan to re-enter select markets on a limited basis starting Monday, Aug. 31.
“Over the past several months we have been working to make our facilities even better, and to ensure that everything we produce is safe, wholesome and of the highest quality for you to enjoy,” said Ricky Dickson, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, in a videotaped statement.
Dickson said that the return would involve “parts of 15 states,” and that since only one Blue Bell plant is currently in operation (in Sylacauga, AL), product supplies would initially be limited.
The Blue Bell production facility in Sylacauga began producing ice cream in late July after a test-and-hold period. Additional production facilities in the company’s headquarters of Brenham, TX, and in Broken Arrow, OK, are still undergoing facility and production process upgrades similar to those made at the Alabama plant, Dickson noted.
A Q&A section on the Blue Bell site indicates that the Broken Arrow plant would likely be up and running before the Brenham one due to its relatively smaller size.
The phased-in return to market comes four months after Blue Bell recalled all of its products then on retail shelves made at all of its facilities, including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks. That move, announced April 20, 2015, was due to the potential for the products to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes after Blue Bell received several positive tests from products made in two different places.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10 people from four states developed listeriosis in connection with Blue Bell products. All were hospitalized, and three potentially related deaths were reported in Kansas.
CDC stated that, “in February 2015, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control isolated Listeria as part of routine sampling from Blue Bell brand single-serving ice cream products collected from a distribution center: Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and Great Divide Bars.
“In response to the findings in South Carolina, the Texas Department of State Health Services collected product samples from the Blue Bell Creameries production facility in Brenham, Texas, that made these products. Testing by Texas health officials yielded Listeria isolates from some samples of the same two products tested by South Carolina and from another Blue Bell ice cream product called “Scoops.” This product was made on the same production line as the Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and Great Divide Bars. PFGE was performed on the Listeria isolated from the ice cream samples; seven different PFGE patterns were identified and uploaded to PulseNet,” the agency reported in its final update on the outbreak issued June 10, 2015.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration subsequently posted inspection reports of Blue Bell facilities completed from 2007-2015. The earlier reports did not show evidence of Listeria contamination but noted numerous violations of food safety protocols.
While the company’s plants were shut down for cleaning, sanitizing, and retraining of employees, Blue Blue CEO and President Paul Kruse announced in mid-May that about 2,850 out of approximately 3,900 employees would be laid off or furloughed.
Kruse said those workers considered “essential to ongoing operations and cleaning and repair efforts” were not being laid off or furloughed but would have their pay reduced.
Due to limited production capacity while producing in one facility, Dickson said Monday that Blue Bell will re-enter parts of 15 states in five phases. The first was described as similar to how the 108-year-old company began and include the Brenham, Houston and Austin areas of Texas, as well as parts of Alabama, (Birmingham and Montgomery), near where the product is being made.
Blue Bell plans to move on to each phase based on product availability and when it can properly service the customers in an area, the company stated. With the exception of phase one, no other dates have been determined for when each expansion will take place.
As to how consumers can tell whether a particular Blue Bell ice cream product was produced before or after the recall, the company stated:
“We have changed the numbering system for code dates on all Blue Bell products. This change is being implemented to assure you that the products we are reintroducing to the marketplace are indeed new products manufactured with our enhanced production processes. The six digit code, found on the bottom of each carton, will remain the same, but the letter will be removed and replaced with a three digit number which designates plant and production line information.”
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