Seen and heard: Listeria in Blue Bell ice cream

As the coverage of the 10 case/3 death listeriosis outbreak focuses on the expansion of the recall many are looking at the fallout and environmental and product testing in ice cream facilities

Rachel Abrams and Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times report on how customers might react:

Analysts voiced concerns that Blue Bell had acted too late, as the recalls eroded customer confidence. Restoring trust as the summer sales season approaches will be difficult, they say.bluebell3

“When there’s a recall and somebody does something quickly and when they handle it properly, we forgive it,” said Phil Lempert, food industry analyst for “When it’s the entire product line or the entire company,” he said, “people are very concerned.”

“Food and safety recalls are something that retailers take very seriously,” said Dya Campos, a spokeswoman for HEB Grocery. She said the grocer was referring all queries from shoppers to Blue Bell and that it would independently assess whether to carry the brand again once its products were deemed safe.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler was also quoted about the perception of expanding recalls:

“Limiting the recall might seem like a good idea. But then if you keep expanding your recall, it’s a death by a thousand cuts. You look like you’re dragging your feet.”

Karin Robinson – Jacobs and Sherry Jacobson of the Dallas Morning News dive right into Blue Bell’s response.

The company acknowledged that when it issued its first recall notice, portraying the problem as limited, isolated and small, it did so before thoroughly testing for Listeria throughout its operation.

One food safety expert did not fault the company for its initial brevity, but said subsequent events show that the company expressed confidence too soon.

“Maybe the cleaning and sanitation program that Blue Bell was using wasn’t adequate,” said Benjamin Chapman, a food safety expert with North Carolina State University. “As more samples came back … it highlights that this problem was larger than they originally thought.”

Blue Bell spokeswoman Jenny Van Dorf said that before the initial March 13 recall “we were regularly testing our products at that time for bacteria. There was nothing that indicated that there was any issue,” she said.

She added that the production line identified in the initial recall was in an isolated area of the main Brenham plant, which added to the company’s sense that the problem also was isolated. So far, two lines in Brenham and two in Broken Arrow, Okla., have turned up traces of Listeria.

“We’ve always followed industry standards with testing our product,” she said. “But now going forward, we will specifically test for Listeria.”

Van Dorf said Blue Bell has hired an outside lab and will place any newly produced product in cold storage while waiting for results from tests specifically designed to detect Listeria. The wait could be several days.

The new procedure, called “test and hold” marks a more costly departure from the company’s past testing protocols and lengthens the time before product returns to market.

Chapman noted that there is no federal mandate for how food manufacturers are to test. He said “industry standards” are more like common practices.

But he cautioned against the urge to mandate specific testing methods because each plant is so different.

“I think you get into a very dangerous situation when you start to say there should be a minimum amount of environmental [testing] that goes on because each business has their own particulars. What we need are really good operators who understand where pathogens come from and they know what to do to … reduce the risk.”

Raleigh NBC affiliate WNCN asked me about the outbreak, you can see the interview below.
WNCN: News, Weather, Raleigh, Durham, Fayetteville

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.