Last week, a federal court in Texas announced that Blue Bell Creameries will have to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties for shipping contaminated ice cream products that sickened people over five years ago.
The 113-year-old ice cream manufacturer that distributes gallons of ice cream to half the country pleaded guilty in May 2020 for knowingly selling spoiled ice cream back in 2015, which was linked to a multistate listeriosis outbreak. Now, Blue Bell Creameries will go down in history as having the largest-ever fine for a criminal penalty associated with a food safety case. (For more grocery store news you need to know, here are 8 Grocery Items That May Soon Be in Short Supply.)
"The health of American consumers and the safety of our food are too important to be thwarted by the criminal acts of any individual or company," said Judy McMeekin, Pharm.D., Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Americans expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity. 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."
In February 2015, Texas state officials notified Blue Bell that two samples of ice cream products from its factory in Brenham, Texas tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a foodborne pathogen that can lead to Listeriosis. According to the CDC, Listeriosis is a serious infection often caused by food that has been contaminated with listeria.
Two weeks after the first round of testing indicated two Blue Bell products were tainted with the pathogen, the brand was informed that additional state-led testing revealed Listeria was prevalent in a third product. However, Blue Bell decided against issuing a formal public service announcement to inform consumers.
One month later, the FDA and CDC conducted tests on several Blue Bell ice cream products and found that the strain of Listeria in one of the items was linked to the same strain that caused five patients at a hospital in Kansas to fall ill with listeriosis. FDA inspections disclosed that two Texas facilities had various sanitation issues, such as problems with the hot water supply necessary for cleaning equipment.
For more important food safety news, check out 8 Major Food Recalls You Need to Know About Right Now.