Following on the heels of the Blue Bell recall in April, the FDA issued findings that the company knew about the presence of listeria in their Oklahoma production facility in 2013 and 2014. Documents released by the FDA reveal that investigations discovered five samples of listeria in 2013 and ten in 2014. The samples were on non–food contact areas, but listeria anywhere poses a problem in case it spreads to other areas of the facility. Blue Bell spokesman Joe Robertsonsaid the company improved their methods in the wake of the discovery enough to solve the problem, “but in hindsight, it was not adequate, which is why we are currently conducting such a comprehensive re-evaluation of all our operations.”
The plant in Oklahoma closed on April 3, and plants in Texas and Alabama followed suit on April 24. They are currently evaluating equipment and procedures. Microbiologists are in plants (or will be soon) to review and advise on cleaning procedures. Blue Bell is also working to train employees better concerning bacteria and getting rid of all existing cardboard in each plant. None of the plants is currently making any ice cream.
Some retailers had hoped Blue Bell products would return to shelves by Memorial Day. Ice cream sales are always highest in the summer. and having the ice cream back in time for oncoming hot weather would help retailer sales. Blue Bell currently has no plans to be up and running by that time and does not have an exact schedule for when they do plan to be back on shelves, citing safety as their first priority.
Interestingly, researchers might not have even been able to trace the different strains of listeria back to a single source as recently as two years ago. A new program at the CDC allows them to map out the entire genome of a strain of listeria and make better comparisons between different cases. Dr. Neil Fishman told The New York Times it works as a sort of “molecular fingerprinting,” which makes similarities much clearer than before.
Listeria likes cool, wet places, and freezing does not kill it, although it will prevent the bacteria from growing. So, anyone who has contaminated Blue Bell in the freezer at home shouldn’t count on being able to eliminate the listeria themselves.
This new finding could be a blow for Blue Bell. Will customers trust them after knowing that they failed to update their sanitary procedures over the course of two years? The family-owned company seems to be earnest in their efforts. Keeping ice cream off the shelves for months will hurt them financially but might end up helping on the trust front in the long run. We’ll have to wait until the ice cream gets back into stores, but until then, consider making your own ice cream at home. Might we suggest caramelized banana blue or Tiramisu?