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Former Blue Bell CEO Charged With Listeria Cover-Up

A Blue Bell Ice Cream delivery truck in Industry, Texas. | https://flic.kr/p/eN1pNE
flickr | MikeGC2011
A Blue Bell Ice Cream delivery truck in Industry, Texas. | https://flic.kr/p/eN1pNE

Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries pleaded guilty to charges that it shipped products contaminated with listeria in 2015, and the company’s former CEO was charged with seven felony counts for allegedly covering up the incident, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday.  

Prosecutors allege Paul Kruse, Blue Bell’s former president and CEO, attempted to deceive Blue Bell customers after learning products from the company’s Texas factory tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

According to a press release from the DOJ, Kruse told Blue Bell employees to remove potentially contaminated products from store freezers without telling anyone why.

Prosecutors also said Kruse told employees to lie to customers when asked about why the ice cream was removed, saying there had been “an unspecified issue with a manufacturing machine” rather than listeria contamination.

“We look forward to telling the whole story of how my client along with all of the other employees of Blue Bell did the best they could with the information they had at the time,” read a statement from Kruse’s attorney Chris Flood. “Paul Kruse is innocent of these charges, and we have confidence that a Texas jury will see it that way and let Blue Bell get back to making the best ice cream in America.”

Blue Bell will pay a total of $19.35 million in fines — the second-largest payment ever with regards to food safety, according to the Justice Department. 

“We faced a situation our company had never dealt with before, and our agreement with the government reflects that we should have handled many things differently and better,” Blue Bell said in a statement. “We apologize to everyone who was impacted, including our customers, our employees and the communities where we live and work.”

According to the plea agreement, Blue Bell allegedly distributed ice cream products that were made in unsanitary conditions and that were contaminated with listeria. The company was notified by state officials in February 2015 that two of its products tested positive for listeria. Though Blue Bell told its drivers to remove the stock from store shelves, the company didn’t formally recall the products or communicate the issue to the public, according to the Justice Department.

Another two weeks later, Blue Bell was informed that a third product tested positive, and once again they didn’t issue a formal notification, according to the Justice Department. It wasn’t until five hospital patients in Kansas were linked to the contaminated Blue Bell ice cream in March 2015, that the FDA, CDC and Blue Bell all publicly recalled the products. 

On top of that, FDA inspections in March and April 2015 found sanitation problems at the ice cream company’s facilities in both Texas and Oklahoma, according to the plea agreement. 

“This case has been particularly concerning because of the disregard of basic food safety rules and the impact those actions can have on the health and safety of the Defense Department’s service members and their families,” said Robert Craig Jr., Special Agent at the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, said in a press release. 

Since reopening its facilities in late-2015 after cleaning and updating them, the ice cream manufacturer has improved its sanitation processes and implemented a test for listeria prior to shipment, according to the Justice Department. 

“Since resuming production in the summer of 2015, we test our ice cream and deliver it to stores only after independent tests confirm it is safe,” Blue Bell said in a statement.

This story was produced by Houston Public Media.