Blue Bell and Jeni’s, both ice cream manufacturers that trade on trust, community and faith, but not Listeria testing, are trying to learn science.
Blue Bell “hopes” to start test production in its Sylacauga, Alabama, facility in the next several weeks. “When production resumes at the Sylacauga plant, it will be on a limited basis as the company seeks to confirm that new procedures, facility enhancements and employee training have been effective,” the company stated in a press release. “Upon completion of this trial period, Blue Bell will begin building inventory to return to the market.”
Two hundred people attended an actual prayer vigil in the creameries’ hometown of Brenham, then in May, a Blue Bell black market began on Craigslist (one Dallas seller was asking $10,000 for a gallon of Caramel Turtle Cheesecake. With a bowl missing). And, of course, there was this:
Mimi Swartz of Texas Monthly declared that “ice cream is Proustian.” It conjures up moments of childhood and family better than most foods. And I have have my own Blue Bell-specific memories – the old man gave up the more dangerous vices and he replaced them with one guilty pleasure, bought by the gallon and eaten by the bowl-full. That was childhood, though, and as Maw and Pops got older and more health-conscious, they switched to sorbet. Then they stopped with the sweets altogether. I shed no tears.
As homegrown and delicious as Blue Bell might be, it’s worth reviewing how the company created and responded to this catastrophe—a series of missteps that baffled legal and food safety experts. In May, the Houston Chronicle reported that Blue Bell found “strong evidence” of listeria in one of its Oklahoma factories in 2013, but failed to correct the issue. The Houston Press detailed the company’s “plant environmental testing plan” through a private lab. Although factory swabs were routinely tested for pathogens, Blue Bell only looked at areas that didn’t have contact with ice cream.
Blue Bell further confounded experts with its first attempt at pulling the dangerous products. It initially tried to quietly remove products back in February before people started getting sick. Unlike a complete recall, these withdrawals don’t require public notice, a particularly scary thought considering the outbreak was linked to three deaths. From the Dallas Morning News:
“With something like this, I don’t understand how they got away with doing a withdrawal,” said Cliff Coles, president of California Microbiological Consulting Inc. “Withdrawal is not nearly as strong of language as a recall. If you knew that you had listeria, why wasn’t it a recall?
If Blue Bell had tackled the problem head on, it could’ve meant drastically different results. As food safety lawyer Bill Marler noted in the Houston Press:
“If [Blue Bell executives] had been more transparent and forthcoming about this instead of trying to control the story and not commenting for so long, things might have been different, they might have saved jobs.”
Although Blue Bell Creameries might have started off as a humble, aw-shucks local operation, it is, at the end of the day, a business. And an ambitious one at that: It now sells its product in twenty states, has 3,900 employees (before the May layoff of 42 percent), and is the third-ranked ice cream company, nationally, with about $880 million in sales.
Jeni’s ice cream will either lay off 40 production workers or find them jobs in its central Ohio scoop shops, said John Lowe, CEO, in a statement this afternoon. The company’s Michigan Avenue production kitchen has been idle for the past month after a second listeria positive.