Prof baffled by public support as Blue Bell ice cream returns to Texas

As Blue Bell ice cream returns to most of Texas, Mindy Brashears, a professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech told the Lubbock Avalanche Journal  she’s baffled by the public’s response to Blue Bell’s return, adding she believes a company selling meat products — such as beef — would probably be out of business under the same circumstances.

wtfBlue Bell was greeted by some faithful fans at 4 a.m. Monday who were awaiting the product’s return after the Brenham-based company recalled all its products when it was linked to 10 listeria cases that resulted in three deaths.

One fan who wasn’t awaiting the product’s return with open arms is Mindy Brashears, the director of International Center for Food Industry Excellence and a professor and researcher at Tech. She is currently teaching a class in the Bahamas, but spoke with A-J Media through email.

She said there’s no logical explanation she can think of to explain why consumers were so anxious and welcoming for the product’s return.

“The consumer response to Blue Bell baffles me,” she said. “First of all, had this been a beef product, the public outcry/ban would have likely put the company out of business. There is much history of this phenomenon. This occurs even when no illnesses are reported and there is simply a recall of the product.”

Blue Bell did face economic hardship after the recall and temporary shut-down.

But what Brashears found most troubling was what she called Blue Bell’s lack of response to addressing the problem sooner. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s investigation, the outbreak began in 2010. Brashears said it wasn’t until the outbreak caught public attention that the company decided to act.

blue.bell.jul.15“Of great concern is the fact that they knew the product was going to hospitals and schools, thus reaching the most at-risk populations and therefore, they should have been especially diligent in addressing the issues that started back in January of 2010 instead of waiting for the problem to grow,” she said.

Brashears said Listeria monocytogenes, or listeria, is a bacteria that causes muscle aches, headaches and fever. It can cause septicemia and meningitis and even death, she said.

Listeria is of special concern when it’s in a ready-to-eat product like cheeses and ice cream, and the center for disease control estimates 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths each year in the U.S. because of it.

How investigators cracked the Blue Bell listeria outbreak case

Some good investigative work by CBS News figuring out how a beloved Texas icon could be crass when it came to public health.

blue.bell.jul.15There’s the usual stuff about how workers said the places were dumps, after the outbreak became public, but didn’t say much when they were working there.

Guess everyone needs a paycheck.

Three deaths caused by ice cream tainted by bacteria last spring were part of an outbreak that had been going on for years.

In April, Blue Bell Creameries recalled all of its products in 23 states. The ice cream was contaminated with listeria which can be fatal to people who are ill or have compromised immune systems.

In part two of the investigation, investigators show CBS News how the case of the mystery deaths was solved.

When Megan Davis and her team from the South Carolina Department of Health randomly sampled ten products from a local Blue Bell distribution center in January — the last thing they expected to find was listeria.

“It was unbelievable actually,” said Davis. “We never in a million years thought we’d find a positive sample.”

Two of the ten samples tested positive, but just to be sure, they went back and collected 30 more.

“All 30 of the samples that we tested, tested positive for listeria,” said Davis. “Yes, stunning. A little scary that those products were going to consumers.”

Davis uploaded their findings into Pulsenet, a database of DNA fingerprints the Center for Disease Control monitors to identity outbreaks nationwide.

“The listeria germs found in South Carolina in the ice cream matched illnesses in a hospital in Kansas,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of CDC’s Foodborne Disease Division.

That hospital was Via Christi St. Francis in Wichita. Listeria had sickened five of their patients over the past year, but the hospital couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. The listeria patterns found in South Carolina solved the mystery in Kansas.

Turns out, all five of the patients had been served milkshakes made with Blue Bell ice cream.

In mid-February, Blue Bell quietly pulled all the ice cream made on the machine that had produced the ice cream testing positive in South Carolina, citing a quality issue. But Via Christi still had plenty of other Blue Bell products in its freezers. The Kansas Department of Health tested 45 of them, and found another hit.

 

Fortune looks at the business of food safety and Blue Bell

Powell has often used the term, making people sick is bad for business; or as Fortune Magazine alliterates, the food industry has a $55.5 billion problem. Peter Elkend and Beth Kowitt of Fortune published sister pieces on the intersection of food safety and business focusing on Blue Bell’s recent listeria outbreak and re-entry to the marketplace.

Kowitt writes,

Food-borne illness is a giant, expensive challenge for companies big and small—and the surprise is, their exposure to the risk (and the liability when linked to an outbreak) is arguably bigger than ever. “Thirty years ago if you had a little problem, you were not going to get discovered,” says David Acheson, former associate commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who today runs a consulting firm. “Now the chances of getting caught are significant, and it can be the end of your company.”acf7763f-9190-4bd1-8e69-ae99293596d0

For instance, since 2006 investigators have fingered a bacterial strain called E. coli O157:H7 (at one time widely thought to be found only in meats) in bags of baby spinach, in hazelnuts, and in cookie dough. They’ve identified botulism in pasteurized carrot juice and found salmonella in peanut butter, ground pepper, jalapeño peppers, Turkish pine nuts, and pistachios. They’ve discovered hepatitis A virus in pomegranate seeds; cyclospora in bagged salad mix; and Listeria monocytogenes in ice cream.

“I’m skeptical that these are new connections,” says Ben Chapman, associate professor of food safety at North Carolina State University, who runs a website called the Barfblog (I meant new pathogen/food contamination -ben). “It’s stuff that’s always been there, and now we’re looking for it.” That would help explain why FDA-regulated food recalls have more than doubled over the past decade, to 565 last year, according to insurance company Swiss Re—with nearly half related to microbiological contamination. In interviews with more than 30 experts, nearly all said the rise in recalls was less an indicator of deteriorating food safety than it was of our improving capacity to connect the dots between foods and microbes.

Molecular techniques (PFGE to whole genome sequencing) also get a shout out from friend of barfblog, Linda Harris.

Up until the 1990s, most outbreaks we found were in the same geographic location—the church picnic where everyone eats the same bad potato salad and calls in sick the next day. Then new technology enabled scientists to determine the various DNA fingerprints of food-borne bacteria, which were uploaded into a common database. Investigators were suddenly able to link disparate cases of illness by finding bacterial matches. “It revolutionized outbreak investigation,” says Linda Harris, a microbiologist in the department of food science and technology at the University of California at Davis.

Whole genome sequencing is the biggest advance I’ve seen in my 15 years in food safety.

In the Blue Bell piece, Peter Eklund writes,

The episode reveals not only how difficult it is to trace the source of food-borne illness but also what happens when a company is slow to tackle the causes—and doesn’t come clean with its customers. Experts say Blue Bell’s responses this year were an example of “recall creep.” That occurs when executives hope that taking limited action—as the company did five times when informed of findings of listeria—will solve the problem and minimize commercial damage, only to find themselves forced to expand the recall repeatedly. It’s the opposite of Johnson & Johnson’s actions in the 1982 Tylenol-tampering episode, when the brand famously saved its reputation by swiftly recalling every bottle of the medication.

blue-bell-ice-cream-600Eklund and I spoke a lot about Blue Bell’s sharing of information specifics, which I’ve criticized as lacking. When a company is linked to illnesses and deaths and they say stuff like ‘food safety is important to us’ or ‘we’re going to step up what we are doing around microbiolgical sampling, cleaning and sanitation’ or ‘we’re hiring the best’ it often lacks substance. Sure, tell folks what you are doing but more important is pulling back the curtain on how many samples, what they are looking for, how they determined where and what to look for and what they are going to do if they find an issue. That’s what we mean by marketing food safety.

But Eklund quotes Gene Grabowski, a PR consultant involved in Blue Bell’s response as playing the we’re sorry and trust us game,

“In my playbook, you apologize sincerely once and then you move on.” (He has been supplanted by a team from PR giant Burson-Marsteller led by Karen Hughes, who served as a top White House communications adviser to George W. Bush.) “Had the company known then what it knows now,” Grabowski says, “it would have done a full recall of all products earlier than it did.”

Two decades into the world of online discussions, immediate news exchange, and Twitter flame wars and some are still sadly following the apologize and move on approach.

Food Safety Talk 80: Literally the hummus I’m eating

Food Safety Talk, a bi-weekly podcast for food safety nerds, by food safety nerds. The podcast is hosted by Ben Chapman and barfblog contributor Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University. Every two weeks or so, Ben and Don get together virtually and talk for about an hour.  They talk about what’s on their minds or in the news regarding food safety, and popular culture. They strive to be relevant, funny and informative — sometimes they succeed. You can download the audio recordings right from the website, or subscribe using iTunes.1442690399236

The show opens with a discussion of Don’s mic stand and quickly segues into “Linda’s Famous Cigar Story”, and Ben’s annual pollen throat. After a discussion of their various ailments, Don wishes Ben an almost 37th birthday.

Ben is currently expecting a new macbook, which was discussed on Episode 116 of the Talk Show. Don shares his recent experiences looking at Apple Watch in the Apple Store, and his preference for the Milanese Loop and his new burr grinder and aeropress.

When the talk turns to food safety, Ben talks about his work with Family & Consumer Sciences in North Carolina, (called Family and Community Health Sciences at Rutgers University) and how Ben has recently changed his training practices from classroom lecture to supermarket and restaurant inspection field trips based on inspiration from Dara Bloom.

This inspires Don to talk about the work he’s doing to help documentary film makers doing a story on shelf life dating of foods especially milk. Ben shares some of the myths circulating about expired milk including this bogus article from Livestrong, and the work he’s doing on expired food and food pantries.

From there the discussion moves to other shelf life myths including the egg float or shake tests, and why they are bogus, as well as places to go for good egg information, because someone on the Internet will always be wrong.

The discussion turns to recalled hummus recall messaging and Ben’s post hockey snacking tips.

As the guys wrap up the show they briefly talk about Blue Bell ice cream and the doses of Listeria that might have made people sick and the future of food safety given the advances in molecular biology, clinical microbiology and whole genome sequencing. Ben shares some final thoughts on Salmonella in spices and how whole genome sequencing might impact that industry too.

In the brief after dark, Ben and Don talk about yoga, and getting healthy, the Turing Test, and the new Star Wars movie trailer.

Blue Bell may be down homey, but dragged its feet on Listeria outbreak

According to an editorial in The Wichita Eagle, when a food manufacturer learns from health officials that its product is tainted with a pathogen, and confirms the contamination itself, surely it should halt production until the problem is fixed and recall the affected products right away.

blue.bell.jul.15Yet a Houston Chronicle investigative report on the listeria outbreak linked to Blue Bell ice cream earlier this year indicated the company took its time to do both.

That’s troubling news especially in Wichita, as five patients at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis for unrelated conditions became ill from eating Blue Bell ice cream and three died, The Eagle reported in March. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the three deaths among 10 infected patients in four states were those in Kansas.

Focusing on a machine nicknamed “Gram” that ran nearly around the clock at the plant in Brenham, Texas, the Chronicle reported: “On Feb. 13, health officials alerted Blue Bell that they had discovered the pathogen in random samples. On Feb. 19 and 21, Blue Bell’s own tests discovered (Listeria) monocytogenes in drains connected to the freezer on the Gram line. But the company did not change its practices, which had thus far failed to eliminate the bacteria, FDA records show. On March 9, Blue Bell learned of a potential link between Kansas hospital illnesses and individually packaged ice cream, produced on Gram. On March 10, it stopped using the machine. Three days later, it issued the first in a line of recalls: everything made on Gram.”

If Blue Bell Creameries is the worst-case scenario, the majority of food manufacturers operate safely, of course, recognizing that food safety isn’t just crucial for public health but essential to stay in business.

Tumbling dice: Safety sacrificed for profits say former Blue Bell employees

It’s a familiar tale.

SafetySignsProductivity may go down so safety corners are cut.

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.

The full story is a good read.

Blue Bell is shipping ice cream again after Listeria outbreak

Blue Bell Creameries began shipping ice cream from its facility in Sylacauga, Ala., on Tuesday, more than three months after an outbreak of listeria contamination nearly devastated the Southwestern ice cream favorite and forced the closing of all four of its plants.

blue.bell.jul.15But while this week’s move put frozen treats one step closer to consumers, the company said it did not yet know which stores would ultimately restock their shelves with Blue Bell flavors, or how soon.

“We’ve still got to meet with our retailers,” said Joe Robertson, Blue Bell’s advertising and public relations manager. “Retailers have been very supportive of us.”

Three people died and several others became ill after eating Blue Bell ice cream products contaminated with the listeria bacteria. A series of recalls and cleanups at the plants failed to eradicate the problem, and in April, the company voluntarily pulled all of its ice cream from store shelves.

Mr. Robertson said that the company had hired microbiologists to help review its safety procedures, and that every batch of ice cream would be tested before shipment. State officials in Alabama began collecting their own samples in late July, and cleared Blue Bell on Aug.

The Alabama plant is the only one of the company’s plants — two others are in Texas and one is in Oklahoma — that has been reopened and is producing the company’s products. Before the shutdown, the Alabama plant accounted for about 20 percent of Blue Bell’s items, Mr. Robertson said.

Blue Bell must notify the Texas Department of State Health Services two weeks before it resumes production, according to Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the agency.

 “In FDA testing, more than 99 percent of Blue Bell products had Listeria in it,” Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told Yahoo Health. “It was incredible. It wasn’t high levels, but it was there.”

Blue Bell has said its plants have gone through extensive cleaning and decontamination, but is it enough?

Doyle says it should be. Here’s why: Blue Bell likely had to strip down all of its plant equipment, take it all apart, and fully clean and sanitize everything. That includes getting rid of biofilms, a mucus-like substance that can surround bacteria like Listeria and protect it from sanitizers that would otherwise kill it.

Once that’s completed, the equipment will be tested and re-tested, and the ice cream will be frequently checked and swabbed to make sure it’s listeria-free.

“The FDA has jurisdiction over this, and they’re going to be monitoring the whole thing,” says Doyle. “The FDA is going to be all over these Blue Bell plants for a while.”

Doyle adds that it’s actually not uncommon for Listeria to get into processing facilities, since “some soil contains listeria and it can come in on plant workers’ shoes.” However, “the key is to control it,” he says.

Unfortunately, Doyle says there’s no way of visibly telling whether your ice cream is Listeria-free — you have to trust the manufacturer.

Or they could market food safety at retail and make microbial test results public.

3 dead, 7 sick: Blue Bell OKed to start ice cream production at Alabama plant

Blue Bell, the iconic Texas ice cream gone from store shelves since April, has no sales restrictions in Alabama now that tests after a major plant cleanup there show no signs of listeria.

blue.bell.jul.15Blue Bell Creameries, which began test runs at its Alabama plant last month, said: “We are producing ice cream. The ice cream we are producing is being added to our inventory. At this time, we do not have a date when our products will return to market.”

It was not immediately clear how much product the small Alabama plant can supply or where it will be distributed.

The company has not said when plants in Texas and Oklahoma will resume production.

Public health infrastructure: Quarter of Listeria cases in Texas not tracked or recorded

Roughly one-fourth of Texas cases involving Listeria, which contaminated Blue Bell ice cream and forced a crippling national recall in April, are not submitted to public health officials as required by law and go untracked, a newspaper reported Sunday.

listeria4Texas is not alone: Many state health departments in the U.S. don’t receive samples in 10 to 40 percent of confirmed Listeria cases to enter into databases, which can leave regulators unable to trace an outbreak, leave deadly food on the market and help companies avoid responsibility, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The Blue Bell outbreak could have been identified sooner had Listeria reporting been better around the country, said Richard Danila, assistant state epidemiologist for the Minnesota State Health Department.

“The clinical laboratory is there for the diagnosis and treatment of the patient,” said Shari Shea, director of food safety for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “There’s not always appreciation for the way it fits into the public health system.”

At least 19 states don’t have laws requiring laboratories to submit confirmed Listeria samples, or “isolates,” to state health officials. Of those that do, Texas hovers around the middle of the pack in states missing samples in confirmed cases, according to the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response.

But despite Texas requiring laboratories to submit samples, the state has never enforced the mandate. Texas Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Carrie Williams said the agency instead prefers to work with labs and health providers to educate them and bring them into compliance.

Penalties are almost never enforced in any state, said Craig Hedberg, epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. He said part of the reason is that public health departments depend on relationships with laboratories.

Annals of great headlines: Blue Bell ice cream finds a sugar daddy after Listeria meltdown

CNN Money reports that Blue Bell Creameries, the ice cream maker that has been shutdown by listeria contamination tied to at least three deaths, has found a billionaire investor to help it get back on its feet.

blue.bell.scoopsThe company announced Tuesday that billionaire Sid Bass has become a partner. Bass, 73, is worth an estimated $1.7 billion, according to the latest estimate from Forbes. He has worked at his family’s investment firm his entire career, notably in its oil and gas holdings and the large stake it once held in the Walt Disney Co. (DIS)

Blue Bell was a leading ice cream brand in the southern U.S., but it had to recall all of its products in April after discovering widespread contamination by the listeria bacteria, which can survive at colder temperatures than most other deadly bacteria.

The business has been family owned for 108 years and does not release financial data. Estimates were that it was the nation’s fourth largest ice cream maker behind Nestle (NSRGF), maker of Dryer’s and Edy’s ice cream brands, Unilever (UL), which makes of Breyers and Ben & Jerry’s, and Wells Enterprises, which makes Blue Bunny.