In a plea deal, government attorneys agreed to drop felony fraud charges against the retired former chief executive of Blue Bell Creameries LP over a 2015 listeria outbreak that led to three deaths. In exchange, 68- year-old Paul Kruse agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge over food safety violations and pay a $100,000 fine.

Kruse will not have to do any jail time. He said he is grateful to “all my friends and family, particularly the Blue Bell family who have stood behind me during this difficult time.” Kruse said he was “glad I stood up for what was right.”

“The settlement confirms what Mr. Kruse has been saying from the very beginning, no one at Blue Bell ever intended to defraud its customers, and we are happy that the government has reached the same conclusion,” defense attorney Chris Flood said Wednesday.

The bottom line is that the plea agreement supplanting the need for a second jury trial that was to have begun on April 10 and that the new misdemeanor replaced all the fraud and conspiracy felonies that first went to a jury trial last year. That jury broke 10 to 2 in Kruse’s favor.

Federal Judge Robert Pitman declared a mistrial on Aug. 15, 2022, after the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Until recent days, the government was intent on going ahead with a second trial. A final docket call was set for March 31.

While sealed, the plea agreement appears to wipe all that away. The government is dismissing all fraud charges against Kruse, in exchange for his guilty plea to the misdemeanor, which will include the $100,000 fine

The government’s misdemeanor filing adds some detail to the sealed plea agreement. It says:

“At all times relevant to this Information, Defendant Paul Kruse was the president and chief executive officer of Blue Bell Creameries (“Blue Bell”) and worked at the company’s Brenham, Texas, headquarters. Blue Bell’s sales, marketing, quality, and other departments all reported to Paul Kruse.

COUNT 1-21 U.S.C. §§ 331(a) and 333(a)(1) (Introducing adulterated foods into interstate commerce)

” Between on or about January 1, 2015, and on or about March 13, 2015, in the Western District of Texas, the Defendant, Paul Kruse, caused to be introduced and delivered for introduction into interstate commerce, from Brenham, Texas, to Lexington, South Carolina, Wichita, Kansas, and other locations outside of Texas, foods, namely ice cream products, that were adulterated: (i) within the meaning of Title 21, United States Code, Section 342(a)(1), in that they contained a poisonous or deleterious substance, namely Listeria monocytogenes, that rendered the foods injurious to health; and (ii) within the meaning of Title 21, United States Code, Section 342(a)(4), in that they had been prepared, packed, and held under conditions whereby they may have become contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, all in violation of Title 21, United States Code, Sections 331(a) and 333(a)(1).”

Each of the dismissed felonies threatened Kruse with 20 years of jail time, But the plea agreement removes that threat from Kruse for the first time since his 2020 indictment.

Kruse was accused of conspiracy and fraud for suppressing some information about a 2015 listeriosis outbreak. Ten people were sickened and three died.

The 10 confirmed patients were from four states – Arizona (1), Kansas (5), Oklahoma (1), and Texas (3). They all required hospitalization.

During a crisis of more than 60 days in 2015, Kruse ultimately recalled all Blue Bell products and closed its production facilities in Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama.

But Kruse did not act fast enough for government prosecutors who said disclosures of the listeriosis problem were withheld from customers and the public for too long.

Through “retrospective review,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found isolates collected from Blue Bell ice cream that matched illnesses with onset dates from 2010 to 2014.

This historic Pulsenet data for DNA “fingerprints.” including three previous deaths in Kansas where listeriosis was a factor, all occurred before Blue Bell knew of the outbreak in early 2015.

A federal Grand Jury indicted Kruse in 2020 after a five-year investigation.

The Austin-based federal Western District Court for Texas found the United States v. Kruse to be “a complex criminal case.” 

The government has hardly come away empty-handed.

As a corporate entity, Blue Bell pleaded guilty in a related case in 2020 to two counts of distributing adulterated food products in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The company agreed to pay criminal penalties totaling $17.5 million and $2,1 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations regarding ice cream products manufactured under unsanitary conditions and sold to facilities, including four federal facilities including the military. At that time the total $19.35 million in fines, forfeiture, and civil settlement payments was the second-largest amount ever paid in resolving a food safety matter.

Kruse was the only individual facing criminal charges linked to the 2015 outbreak.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here)