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.

Seek and ye shall find: Listeria in ice cream

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.creameriesBlue 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:

jenis-ice-cream-leadjpg-3107e469ad83e50e“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.

Going public: Yes, Blue Bell sucks at risk analysis

Food safety experts, puzzling over the earliest days of Blue Bell Creameries’ response to a finding of listeria in some of its products, were confused.

blue.bell.scoopsIn mid-February, company workers began quietly reclaiming products from retailers and institutional customers such as hospitals. That was about a month before the iconic Texas-based ice-cream maker announced its first product recall in 108 years.

The stealth approach, called a withdrawal, came before any illness had been linked to the tainted ice cream. A withdrawal, which generally is used for minor problems, requires no broad notice to the public.

While the state health department called the withdrawal acceptable, some food safety experts are questioning why the public was not made aware of Blue Bell’s issues sooner.

“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?

“I think they could have stepped up to the plate a whole lot quicker and done a whole lot more to protect the consuming public,” he added. “They pussyfooted around what they should have done in the first place.”

He and other food safety experts said they were unaware of any past cases in which a withdrawal, rather than a public recall, was used in a case in which a pathogen such as listeria was found in a ready-to-eat food.

Blue Bell, which first announced the listeria issue in a March 13 recall notice, has declined to go into detail about the withdrawal, citing pending litigation.

Blue Bell has been criticized for moving slowly to alert the public to the magnitude of its problem. The March 13 recall notice came as a terse, six-paragraph statement that pointed the finger at a specific production line that put out a “limited” amount of product. The release noted that “all products produced by this machine were withdrawn. Our Blue Bell team members recovered all involved products in stores and storage.”

listeria4Asked if that means 100 percent of the amount distributed was reclaimed, and that none of the product ended up in the hands of consumers, the company declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

That’s a key point. Food safety experts said a withdrawal would only be appropriate if the company could guarantee that it could account for 100 percent of the product that left the plant.

“Even if one [listeria-tainted] box was sold, at that point, the mechanism is no longer withdrawal,” said Mansour Samadpour, president of Seattle-based IEH Laboratories, a food consulting firm. “It has to be a recall. You have to announce it so anyone who purchased it would know not to consume it.”

“The key there is 100 percent,” he said.

In emailed answers to questions from The Dallas Morning News, Blue Bell challenged the notion that it did not move quickly enough to protect public health.

“From the moment we found out about a presumptive positive [listeria] test on February 13, we began working with regulators and immediately retrieved (we call this a withdrawal) the products that were on the market, which had been produced on a specific machine,” the company said. “That machine was already down for maintenance, so no more products were produced on that machine, and it has since been retired.

“As soon as we were notified on February 13, we notified FDA, and began instructing our employees to recover the products in question, which had been distributed to institutional and retail sales accounts,” the company said. “We went to those account locations and withdrew the products.”

Blue Bell lays off 1,450 workers; 1,400 more furloughed

The Blue Bell Creameries Listeria-in-ice-cream saga seems to be unraviling by the day, with the company announcing it will lay off hundreds of workers and reduce hours and pay for others in wake of its voluntary recall last month of all of its ice cream.

blue.bell.creameriesAlmost 4 in 10 in the Blue Bell workforce of 3,900 will lose their jobs. That’s 750 full-time employees and 700 part-time workers. Another 1,400 employees will be furloughed.

Ten illnesses in four states, including three deaths in Kansas, are now linked to the ice cream.

It was the pint-filling machine at Jeni’s that lead to Listeria recall

The listeria found at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams’ plant was on the spout of one of its pint-filling machines.

listeria4The company plans to spend at least $200,000 to rework its manufacturing line at its Michigan Avenue plant to ensure listeria never visits again, according to a press release.

“We will spend whatever it takes,” said CEO John Lowe, in a statement today.

Jeni’s recalled all of its products and shut down all 21 scoop shops on April 23 after a pint of Dark Chocolate ice cream bought at a Whole Foods in Lincoln, Neb., tested positive for listeria. The test was part of a random sampling of food conducted by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
Jeni’s tested other pints and its production kitchen. Listeria was found in at least one other flavor and at the plant. The machine on which the listeria was found is used only to fill pints, not the large bins, known as buckets, used at scoop shops.

The shops will remain closed, though, while Jeni’s works through its plant revisions.

The company has estimated that in all, it will destroy about 535,000 pounds of product. The recall will cost more than $2.5 million, Lowe said.
The biggest change at the production kitchen announced today is that fresh produce and vegetables, a hallmark of Jeni’s flavors, will be processed at a separate location. Jeni’s did not say where.
The company will also use a new testing regime that includes periodic swabbing of the plant to actively search for contaminants. The protocol is similar to one used by Smith Dairy, of Orrville, which supplies Jeni’s ice cream base. Smith Dairy swabs its facilities twice a month to check for listeria and other contaminants, according to Nate Schmid, chief operating officer.

Jeni’s will also test and hold all of its products prior to shipment in order to ensure their safety, Lowe said in today’s statement.

Listeria likes processing lines; Jeni’s pint filler tests positive for Listeria

Earlier today, in a talk about Listeria and produce, my friend Sophia Kathariou told folks at the NC Food Safety and Defense Task Force annual meeting that processing or packing facilities, not production, looks s to be a common link in outbreaks. Processing and packing lines are full of hard to reach places where Listeria can establish a niche.

Like a nozzle or hose on an ice cream pint filler.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, that’s where Jeni’s believes their Listeria issue arose.The listeria found at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams’ plant was on the spout of one of its pint-filling machines.Jenis-Splendid-Ice-Creams-recalls-all-products-closes-shops-over-listeria-fears

The company plans to spend at least $200,000 to rework its manufacturing line at its Michigan Avenue plant to ensure listeria never visits again, according to a press release.

“We will spend whatever it takes,” said CEO John Lowe, in a statement today.

Jeni’s tested other pints and its production kitchen. Listeria was found in at least one other flavor and at the plant. The machine on which the listeria was found is used only to fill pints, not the large bins, known as buckets, used at scoop shops.

The shops will remain closed, though, while Jeni’s works through its plant revisions.

The company has estimated that in all, it will destroy about 535,000 pounds of product. The recall will cost more than $2.5 million, Lowe said.

The biggest change at the production kitchen announced today is that fresh produce and vegetables, a hallmark of Jeni’s flavors, will be processed at a separate location. Jeni’s did not say where.

The company’s entire production staff is training this week on new safety procedures. The company plans to go above state and federal requirements for food safety, Lowe said. Jeni’s still doesn’t know when it will reopen. 


Do people cook ice cream?

Foodborne illness outbreaks are teachable moments: people are paying more attention to a particular topic.

listeria4Listeria in Blue Bell ice cream is one of those moments in the news cycle where people may pay attention.

So what does the U.S. Institute of Food Technologists tell people?

IFT Spokesperson Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS offers four tips consumers can use to avoid getting sick from Listeria:

  • cook animal products thoroughly to make sure bacteria is killed;
  • wash raw vegetables and fruits very well in order to reduce bacterial pathogens;
  • keep uncooked meat and any utensils or cutting boards that touch the uncooked meat separate from cooked products and anything else you might be eating raw like fruits and vegetables; and,
  • avoid raw milk or food products that have been made with raw milk as they don’t adhere to proper temperature and hygiene standards.

It’s reworded cook-clean-chill-separate dogma and would do nothing to prevent Listeria in ice cream.

Communication is never enough, merge with assessment and management: Listeria update from Jenis CEO

I’ve always seen risk communication and crisis communication as the same thing.

riskThe lens may be magnified in a crisis, but without the basics, it’s bound to fail.

And communication can only succeed with effective risk assessment and management.

So while I commend Jenis CEO John Lowe for the proactive steps they’ve taken now that they found Listeria in their ice cream, were they looking before?

That’s not mentioned in the PR.

And no one can ensure 100% safe.

Tell customers your testing regime, tell customers what you do to prevent Listeria (and who are these world-class experts? Adjectives don’t mean much).

The all-hands-on-deck Listeria eradication effort continues at our production kitchen. World-class experts and our team are working together to ensure we get it all, finally and forever.

We are destroying more than 535,000 pounds (265 tons) of ice cream. That is 15 semi-truck loads or more than 300 pallets. We estimate that this recall will cost the company more than $2.5 million. The vast majority of the ice cream, if not all, will be taken to an anaerobic digester that will convert the dairy into electricity and a clean, natural soil fertilizer.

We have since tested a number of pints and buckets. While all of our buckets and the vast majority of pints tested negative, Listeria was found in a pint of The Buckeye State ice cream (5-082-265), and Listeria might be present in other flavors as well. So let me be unmistakably clear: no one should be eating any of Jeni’s frozen products.

riskman-cycleOur suppliers have jumped in and reacted to this as all of us would want. I’m particularly proud of Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate, who immediately had his facility and chocolate tested (all results showed no presence of Listeria), and of Smith’s Dairy in Orrville, Ohio who has always tested our milk and cream for Listeria before delivering it to us and who has jumped in to help us in our time of need. Beyond that, so many partners have reached out with offers of support. And members of our team are beginning to work with a few of our top partners to help us begin to get back on our feet.

In a time of crisis you learn a lot about the quality of the team you play on. Across our company there has been focus and commitment—a rising to the challenge that makes me more proud than ever to be a part of Team Jeni’s. From watching Jeni Britton Bauer dive in with fellow dairy experts to find the root problem, to our fulfillment team scrambling to our Columbus airport vending machines to ensure no one might buy Jeni’s after the recall, these have been a moving few days.

Team Jeni’s is made up of about 575 people. We have taken steps to provide partial pay for team members who are missing work as a result of the temporary closure: 25% for employees in our scoop shops, most of whom are part-time, and 50% for our kitchen employees, almost all of whom are full-time. We are maintaining health benefits. We have slashed budgets and spending in every way conceivable in an effort to avoid layoffs while we try to subsist without revenue, face the very meaningful costs of the recall, and determine just how long our production kitchen will be down.

While we have been working hard to complete the work that needs to be done, it has been impossible for us to ignore the amazing level of support we have felt. It feels woefully insufficient to say it, but, thank you.

Finally, let me reiterate: we will not make or serve ice cream again until we can ensure it is 100% safe. Until we know more about reopening, we are going to continue to keep our heads down and to work hard to get this issue resolved. But know this: you’ll be hearing from us soon.


Blue Bell suspending operations at its Broken Arrow facility after Listeria outbreak

Blue Bell Creameries has voluntarily stopped operations at its manufacturing plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, so it can be inspected to determine out how some ice cream products recently were contaminated with listeria.

blue-bell-ice-cream-cups-450pxWe are taking this step out of an abundance of caution to ensure that we are doing everything possible to provide our consumers with safe products and to preserve the trust we have built with them and their families for more than a century,” said the company in a release.

The shut-down comes not long after listeria monocytogenes was found on a chocolate ice cream cup that was produced at the Broken Arrow plant on April 15, 2014, and recovered from a hospital in Wichita, Kansas.

Blue Bell outbreak: Faith-based food safety doesn’t get rid of Listeria

An outbreak of listeria that contributed to the deaths of three people has been traced to a second production facility operated by Blue Bell Ice Cream.

listeria4Blue Bell spokesman Gene Grabowski said Tuesday that a contaminated 3-ounce cup of ice cream was traced to a plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Ten products recalled earlier this month by the company were traced to a production line at a plant in Brenham, Texas, where the company is based.

The recall began when five patients at Via Christi St. Francis hospital in Wichita, Kansas, became ill with listeria while hospitalized. Officials determined at least four drank milkshakes that contained Blue Bell ice cream. Three of the patients later died.

The contaminated 3-ounce cup was found at the hospital.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that all five people were hospitalized at the same hospital for unrelated problems before developing invasive listeriosis—a finding that strongly suggests their infections were acquired in the hospital.

Three deaths were reported among these five patients.

Of the four ill people for whom information is available on the foods eaten in the month before Listeria infection, all four consumed milkshakes made with a single-serving Blue Bell brand ice cream product called “Scoops” while they were in the hospital.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture’s (KDA) laboratory isolated Listeria monocytogenes from a previously unopened, single-serving Blue Bell brand 3 oz. institutional/food service chocolate ice cream cup obtained in March 2015 from the hospital associated with this outbreak.

On March 23, 2015, Blue Bell Ice Cream of Brenham, Texas, announced a recall of 3 oz. institutional/food service ice cream cups (with tab lids) of the following flavors: chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.

CDC recommends that consumers do not eat recalled products and that institutions and retailers do not sell or serve them.

blue-bell-ice-cream-cups-450pxInvestigation into whether other products were produced on the same line as the 3 oz. institutional/food service ice cream cups is ongoing, and new information will be provided as it becomes available.

Listeria monocytogenes was previously isolated from the following Blue Bell brand ice cream products collected from Blue Bell Creameries facilities in Texas, South Carolina, or both in 2015: ice cream Scoops, Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches, and Great Divide Bars.

Whole genome sequences of Listeria monocytogenes strains isolated from these ice cream products were highly related to sequences of Listeria strains isolated from four patients in this outbreak.

Blue Bell Creameries reported that these products were removed from the market in March 2015. However, contaminated ice cream products may still be in the freezers of consumers, institutions, and retailers.