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Texas puts Blue Bell Creameries on a short leash; imposes fine

Owners of Blue Bell Creameries LP have agreed to pay a fine in Texas in relation to a deadly Listeria outbreak, but possibly more significant is that health officials will have the company on a short leash for 18 months.

eyes of texas on Blue BellThe agreement between Blue Bell and the Texas State Department of Health Services requires the company to pay $175,000 within 30 days of the signing of the agreement.

Another $675,000 — for a total fine of $850,000 — must be “held in abeyance” and would go to the state if Blue Bell fails to meet food safety requirements in the coming 18 months.

Blue Bell’s president and CEO Paul W. Kruse signed the agreement July 22. Representing the state, Kathryn C. Perkins signed it Thursday.

If Blue Bell makes it through the 18 months without problems, the state will not make the company the remaining $675,000 of the $850,000 fine, according to the agreement.

Ten people were hospitalized across four states, and three died, in the outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections traced to Blue Bell’s production plants in Brenham, TX, and Broken Arrow, OK, from January 2010 through January 2015. Listeria monocytogenes was found in those plants as well as Blue Bell’s Sylacauga, AL, plant No illnesses were linked to the Alabama plant.

Seattle food safety attorney William Marler said Friday that he would not be surprised if Oklahoma and Alabama officials take similar action.

“The most important point about the fine in Texas is not the fine, but that it puts them (Blue Bell) under the jurisdiction of Texas for 18 months when they will be watched like a hawk,” Marler said.

Blue Bell Creameries plant in Texas

The Blue Bell plant in Texas is under the close scrutiny of state officials for at least the next 18 months.

The line Blue Bell must toe in Texas
During what the voluntary agreement describes as an “informal conference” of Blue Bell officials and the State Department of Health Services (SDHS) on May 11,  the details of the deal were finalized.

Blue Bell did not admit any wrongdoing or misconduct and the state did not waive its right to pursue enforcement actions against it in the future.

The agreement requires Blue Bell to continue testing ingredients and testing and holding finished products from distribution until the negative results are returned. If a positive result is returned, a specific procedure kicks in, including a requirement that Blue Bell must notify the state within 24 hours.

Blue Bell also has specific orders to hire independent experts to assess its production plant and modify or replace equipment to prevent the introduction of pathogens into products.

Weekly tests of environmental surfaces and equipment are required, with a 24-hour reporting requirement if any presumptive positives show up.

Blue Bell must also maintain an open-door policy for state inspectors.

“(The company must) provide DSHS full access to the Brenham facilities for purposes of collecting ingredient, finished product, or environmental samples,” the agreement states.

“Should the company identify in identical or contiguous areas of the Brenham facility more than two consecutive presumptive positive tests for Listeria species through its routine environmental monitoring program in areas designated ‘high care’ by the company or for Lm through routine food contact surface testing, the company shall conduct a root cause analysis of the contamination…”

Texas is also requiring that Blue Bell employ strict training and refresher training in food safety practices. Hazard analysis and response plans are also among the requirements included in the agreement, as are record keeping requirements to document that training and routine cleaning and sanitizing are happening on schedule.

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