Blue Bell to Pay Second Largest Tainting Fine

May 4, 2020
Blue Bell Creameries has agreed to pay a $19.35 million federal fine, and its former CEO is facing criminal charges.

Blue Bell Creameries has agreed to pay a $19.35 million federal fine, and its former CEO is facing criminal charges, in connection with listeria contamination in 2015 that killed three people and hospitalized 10.

The U.S. Justice Department announced May 1 that Blue Bell has pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream, paying a fine of $17.25 million. The company also will pay a $2.1 million fine for selling product made in unsanitary conditions to federal facilities. The combined fines are the second largest ever assessed in a food contamination case.

In addition, former CEO Paul Kruse is facing six counts of felony wire fraud, and a seventh of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, for allegedly trying to cover up the situation. He faces a potential sentence of 20 years if convicted.

The outbreak eventually led Blue Bell, the third-best-selling ice cream brand, to recall all of its products. But the federal government alleged that the company reacted too slowly and did not fully inform its customers of the situation.

The situation started when the FDA noted sanitation issues, including an inadequate hot water supply for cleaning, at Blue Bell’s plants in Broken Arrow, Okla., and Brenham, Texas. Subsequent testing revealed listeria contamination in products from both facilities.

The Justice Department alleges that Kruse told employees to remove potentially contaminated product from trade customers’ freezers without telling them why, and if they asked, to refer to an equipment issue without going into specifics.

“Americans expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity and we will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who put the public health at risk by distributing contaminated foods in the U.S. marketplace,” Judith McMeekin, an FDA associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, said in a statement.

“Our agreement with the government involves events that took place five years ago before we shut down and revamped our production facilities and procedures,” Blue Bell said in a statement on its website. “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.”

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