Blue Bell Creameries is again producing ice cream at its headquarters plant in Brenham, TX, the company announced Nov. 18, and it will embark on phases three and four of a five-phase product distribution plan in December. The Brenham plant will be operating on a “limited basis” while the effectiveness of new procedures, facility enhancements and employee training are confirmed, Blue Bell stated. Meanwhile, tours of the facility are suspended. The company recalled all of its ice cream and other frozen dairy products April 20, 2015, after an enhanced sampling program found Listeria monocytogenes in more than one product and in more than one plant. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10 people in four states were hospitalized in connection with that outbreak, and three people in Kansas died. In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 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. A recent investigative report from CBS News featured two former Blue Bell employees who had worked at the Brenham plant claiming they had witnessed ongoing food safety problems there, but that the company had ignored their concerns. Blue Bell officials declined to be interviewed for that report. However, the company issued a statement to CBS noting its commitment through the adoption of various enhanced safety procedures to “producing a safe product.” The Brenham facility was the last of three to go back online, following the company’s plants in Sylacauga, AL, which started back up in July, and Broken Arrow, OK, which restarted production in September. Blue Bell signed agreements with those states outlining specific operational steps to be taken before production could resume. Blue Bell began distributing limited quantities of its ice cream to selected markets at the end of August, about four months after the recall. “We are excited to announce that Blue Bell Ice Cream is once again being made at our main production plant in Brenham,” said Greg Bridges, vice president of operations for Blue Bell. “Over the past several months we have been preparing our facility for this day. We are very thankful for the patience and support our customers have shown Blue Bell.” He added that the ice cream being produced there will be closely monitored and tested, although there is no firm date for when products from the Brenham facility will arrive on store shelves. Blue Bell has a five-phase plan for resuming product distribution and is currently in phase two. Phase three, which will return its products to stores in Texas and Alabama, starts on Dec. 14, and phase four, bringing its ice cream back to Louisiana and Mississippi, will begin on Dec. 21, the company stated. The 108-year-old company furloughed or laid off about 37 percent of its nearly 4,000 employees because of the outbreak and subsequent plant closures, but nearly 700 of those who were on paid furlough have come back to work, Bridges noted. When phase four starts, 115 more employees who were on paid furlough will be brought back, and the total Blue Bell workforce will then be at approximately 1,000 company-wide, he said. The company’s phased-in production process has limited the number of ice cream flavors Blue Bell can provide. It is currently producing just five flavors of ice cream in half-gallon and pint sizes. Before the recall, it made at least 60 different flavors on a regular or seasonal basis.
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