Food Safety / Industry News

FDA Discovers Positive Listeria Tests at Blue Bell Facilities

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

May 08, 2015

FDA records released May 7 detail a host of food safety problems at three Blue Bell Creameries Inc. ice cream plants -- some in the suspect Broken Arrow, Okla., plant dating back to March 2013, and many found in the days since listeria caused a recall of all the company's ice cream products.

Most involved sanitation and the proper cleaning of machines. Listeria had been confirmed in two of the plants.

The federal agency noted 12 "observations" in an 11-page report resulting from an April 23 inspection of the Oklahoma plant. Those included "failure to perform microbial testing where necessary to identify sanitation failures and possible food contamination," "The procedure used for cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and utensils has not been shown to provide adequate cleaning and sanitizing treatment," and unpasteurized milk hitting 50 degrees in a holding tank.

The company's main Brenham, Texas, plant had six observations, including "the following lots of products, which were manufactured between 8/29/14 and 1/21/15 and subsequently distributed into commerce, were sampled by your firm and found positive for Listeria monocytogenes."

The Sylacauga, Ala., plant drew eight observations noted, including "failure to perform microbial testing where necessary to identify possible food contamination." But there was no mention of listeria being found there.

Three deaths in Kansas are now linked to the ice cream, along with seven other illnesses in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona. The first case of listeria was reported March 22. Blue Bell began a complete recall on April 20.

All three plants have been closed for cleaning and sanitation. Some also require building repairs. While the company earlier said it hoped to resume shipping ice cream by the end of this month, "we believe at this time that it will be several months at a minimum,” said President/CEO President Paul Kruse.

The FDA released the reports following a Freedom of Information request by The Associated Press, which reported there were 16 or 17 separate positive tests for listeria found on equipment and in other locations in the Oklahoma plant from March 2013 through February 2015.

Violations in the Oklahoma plant include dirty equipment, improper food storage, food held at improper temperatures and employees not adequately washing hands, according to the report. Employees wore dirty shoes in the plant and soiled, porous wood pallets were used for ingredient storage and transportation. The FDA also said the company did not do enough testing for possible food contamination.

In Alabama, FDA investigators observed at least two employees working close to the food while wearing dirty clothing. In Texas, investigators saw condensation dripping directly into food and onto surfaces that came directly in contact with food. In all of the plants, the FDA found moist, dirty equipment and building infrastructure and disrepair that made cleaning difficult.