A federal court ordered Blue Bell Creameries to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties for distributing ice cream products linked to a 2015 Listeriosis outbreak.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of Austin, Texas imposed a sentence that was consistent with the terms of the ice cream manufacturer’s plea agreement. The amount was the largest-ever criminal penalty following a conviction in a food safety case.
In a statement, DOJ Civil Division Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark said, “American consumers must be able to trust that the foods they purchase are safe to eat. The sentence…sends a clear message to food manufacturers that the Department of Justice will take appropriate actions when contaminated food products endanger consumers.”
Blue Bell pleaded guilty of distributing ice cream contaminated with listeria
In May 2020, Blue Bell pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products. The company admitted that the products were manufactured under unsanitary conditions and contaminated with listeria monocytogenes.
In February 2015, Texas officials informed Blue Bell that samples of two ice cream products from its Brenham factory were tested positive for listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous pathogen that can lead to serious illness or death in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, newborns, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.
The ice cream manufacturer removed its remaining stock of the two products from store shelves. However, it did not recall the products or issue any formal announcement to inform consumers about possible listeria contamination.
Blue Bell also received additional state-led testing confirming listeria contamination in a third product, two weeks after receiving notice regarding the result of the first tests. Again, the ice cream manufacturer failed to issue any formal announcement to consumers about the positive listeria tests.
In March 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted tests and found that five patients at a Kansas hospital with listeriosis were sickened by ingesting Blue Bell ice cream.
The FDA, CDC, and Blue Bell all issued public recall notifications on March 13, 2015. A second recall was announced on March 23, 2015, after subsequent tests confirmed listeria contamination in Blue Bell’s product made at its facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
“Americans deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity”
In March and April 2015, FDA inspections revealed that Blue Bell had sanitation issues at its Brenham and Broken Arrow facilities. The ice cream manufacturer temporarily shut down both facilities took significant steps to improve its sanitation processes and implemented a program to test products for listeria before distribution.
“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. 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,” said FDA Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs, Judy McMeekin, Pharm.D
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