It’s a familiar tale.
According to a feature in The Houston Chronicle, Benjamin Ofori sometimes watched a mush of strawberries and pecans flow into an ice cream tank even after his production line at Blue Bell had been scrubbed.
Low water pressure and temperature hampered Sabien Colvin’s cleanup efforts at the plant.
Another employee saw a steady drip, day after day, from a dirty air vent onto Fudge Bombstiks.
They say they all complained to supervisors.
Ofori also groused about a bypassed safety feature on his line. Later, that machine severed three of Colvin’s fingers.
In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, more than a dozen former employees of Blue Bell’s flagship Brenham plant described a company fighting to keep up with its growing customer base while sanitation and safety slipped. Cleanup workers regularly ran out of hot water, making machinery susceptible to pathogens and allergens. Reused packaging brought grime into the factory. Equipment went without safeguards for years, and several workers lost parts of one or more fingers.
The 14 employees have a combined 213 years of experience on the production lines. Their accounts are bolstered by the limited information reported by the Food and Drug Administration, including details about a contaminated machine that kept cranking out products even as a listeria crisis deepened. They’re also backed by an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation that blasted the company for failing to protect workers.
Blue Bell officials would not agree to an interview to discuss the ex-employees’ assessments of their operation. Spokesman Joe Robertson offered a one-paragraph response.
“We are a family at Blue Bell and we have always valued all of our employees and want them to feel safe and enjoy working here,” he said via email. “Our employees are our company’s greatest asset and many have spent their entire careers with us. Workplace safety, sanitation, and employee training remain our highest priorities as we continuously work to improve.”
Blue Bell attained a frozen empire with a story of idyllic country roots, old-fashioned values and quality ingredients.
But since 2010, tainted Blue Bell products sickened at least 13 people, including three who died after being hospitalized with other illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Findings by the FDA and a private laboratory showed sanitation failures at Brenham extended to plants in Oklahoma and Alabama.
Nationwide, regulators and ice cream companies are rethinking long-held assumptions about cleaning and product testing.