Blue Bell Creameries has signed a voluntary agreement with the Alabama Department of Public Health laying out a series of steps the company plans to take to control Listeria contamination before its products may legally be sold there again. The company has a plant in Sylacauga, AL, which is currently closed. Paul Kruse, Blue Bell’s president and CEO, signed similar agreements May 14, 2015, with health and agriculture officials representing the states of Texas and Oklahoma, respectively. The company operates two production facilities in its headquarters city of Brenham, TX, and one in Broken Arrow, OK., which are also temporarily shut down. In an announcement posted Monday, Kruse said the move “will reassure our customers that we are taking the necessary steps to bring Blue Bell Ice Cream back to the market. We are committed to making these changes so that we meet the high standards and expectations of our customers and our regulatory agencies. Blue Bell will also continue to work cooperatively and transparently with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” Why the company’s agreement with Alabama officials took two weeks longer than the other two states wasn’t clear, although additional legal reviews likely played a part in the delay. “We’ve got one or two minor little things that the attorneys want to put in based on our particular state,” G.M. Gallaspy, director of the department’s Milk and Food Processing Branch in Montgomery, told Food Safety News on May 18. On April 20, 2015, Blue Bell recalled all of its products made at all of its plants. 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 Blue Bell agreement with Alabama health authorities states that the company will be:
- Conducting root cause analyses to identify the potential for Listeria or actual sources;
- Retaining an independent microbiology expert to help establish and review controls to prevent the future introduction of Listeria;
- Notifying the Alabama Department of Public Health promptly of any presumptive positive test result for Listeria monocytogenes found in ingredients or finished product samples and providing the state agencies full access to all testing;
- Ensuring that the company’s Pathogen Monitoring Program for Listeria in the plant environment outlines how the company will respond to presumptive positive tests for Listeria species, and,
- Instituting a “test and hold” program to assure that products are safe before they are shipped or sold.
After the product recall and facilities shutdown, Kruse announced May 15 that Blue Bell was laying off or furloughing a large segment of its workforce, including those in 13 distribution centers in 10 states. He said then that about 1,450 full-time and part-time employees were being laid off and about 1,400 others were being furloughed. Those being laid off comprise about 37 percent of Blue Bell’s total workforce of about 3,900 employees. Those workers considered “essential to ongoing operations and cleaning and repair efforts” were not laid off or furloughed but had their pay reduced. It was reportedly the first layoff in the 108-year history of the family-owned company. Kruse has not publicly announced a schedule for the return of Blue Bell products to the marketplace but has said that when production resumes it would be limited and phased in over time. FDA reports from inspections of Blue Bell facilities were recently posted in response to a public records request from a Dallas newspaper. Four were posted detailing inspections of company facilities from 2007-2012, joining recent FDA inspection reports of three Blue Bell plants performed before and after the company’s total product recall and noting a long list of problems. While none of the earlier inspection reports indicated evidence of Listeria contamination, numerous violations of food safety protocols were observed by Texas state health officials, who reportedly did the 2007-2012 inspections under contract with FDA.