The president and CEO of Blue Bell Creameries signed voluntary agreements on Thursday with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry holding the company to a detailed Listeria testing and reporting regime before selling any ice cream made at its headquarters plant in Brenham, TX, or the one in Broken Arrow, OK. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Blue Bell products have been linked to 10 cases of listeriosis in four states, including three deaths. At this time, CDC recommends that consumers do not eat any Blue Bell brand products, and that institutions and retailers do not serve or sell them. The company said April 3 that it had suspended operations at the Broken Arrow plant, one of four it owns, after state and federal authorities said Listeria monocytogenes had been found in a single-serving chocolate ice cream cup made there. The Brenham facility has been temporarily shut down since late April after Listeria was discovered in some ice cream products from its production lines. On April 20, the company announced it was recalling all products made in all four of its plants and embarking on an extensive program of employee training and equipment cleaning and sanitizing. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors recently reported numerous violations at Blue Bell’s facilities in Brenham, Broken Arrow, and in Sylacauga, AL. President and CEO Paul Kruse has indicated that company officials will respond to each of those inspection reports in detail. The agreements signed Thursday say that Blue Bell must inform state health officials at least two weeks before starting production of ice cream destined for the marketplace so the officials can assess progress and test results. Further, Blue Bell agrees to trial production runs of ice cream that will undergo separate Listeria testing by the states, as well as by the company. “The products must consistently test negative before they can be distributed to the public. A trial run with negative test results must occur for each production line before the line can begin making ice cream for sale,” reads a statement DSHS issued Thursday. The statement noted that agency officials are working with state and national experts to examine frozen dessert manufacturing and identify changes that may be needed to strengthen regulations to protect public health. For at least two years after resuming production, Blue Bell must report within 24 hours any presumptive positive test result for Listeria in a product or ingredient. And, for at least one year after resuming production, Blue Bell must implement “test and hold” procedures for all finished products. This means that products made in the Brenham and Broken Arrow plants must show negative test results for Listeria before being distributed into the marketplace. Other requirements laid out in the signed agreements include:
- State health inspectors will regularly be on site in Brenham to evaluate test results and monitor the trial runs.
- Blue Bell will test ice cream, ingredients, food surfaces, machinery and other equipment at that plant for Listeria and share the results with the state health inspectors.
- The company will make sure that its Listeria monitoring programs include plans for responding to presumptive positive tests when and where found.
- Blue Bell will routinely make available to state officials its cleaning and sanitation policies, procedures and records and its employee training curriculum and records.
State health officials will be reviewing ongoing cleaning, sanitation and training procedures at the Blue Bell plants, and the company has agreed to have independent experts on hand to oversee these efforts and to conduct analyses to determine the root causes of the sources of the contamination. “We are committed to meeting the high standards and expectations of our customers and our regulatory agencies,” Kruse said in a statement posted Thursday. “State and federal regulatory agencies play an important role in food safety, and we hope that it will be reassuring to our customers that we are working cooperatively with the states of Texas and Oklahoma in taking the necessary steps to bring Blue Bell Ice Cream back to the market.” Kruse added that a similar agreement was in the works with state health officials in Alabama.