Ice cream manufacturer Blue Bell Creameries LP was ordered by a federal court in Texas to pay criminal penalties of $17.25 million after the company pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced in a release Thursday.
Blue Bell shipped contaminated ice cream that was connected to a listeriosis outbreak in 2015, according to the executive department. The DOJ described the fine and forfeiture as “the largest-ever criminal penalty” after a conviction in a food safety case.
“American consumers must be able to trust that the foods they purchase are safe to eat,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the DOJ’s Civil Division said in a statement. “The sentence imposed today sends a clear message to food manufacturers that the Department of Justice will take appropriate actions when contaminated food products endanger consumers.”
The plea agreement and criminal information allege that Blue Bell violated the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by distributing ice cream products that were produced under insanitary conditions and contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. Blue Bell received a notification from Texas state officials in February 2015 that samples of two products made at the firm’s Brenham, TX facility tested positive for Listeria, according to the plea agreement. While Blue Bell did instruct its delivery route drivers to remove remaining stock of the ice cream, the company did not issue a recall for the two products or formally inform its customers of the potential contamination.
Two weeks after Blue Bell received information on the two listeria-tainted products, Texas officials told the company that additional testing by the state revealed Listeria in a third product. Following that notification, Blue Bell also did not issue a formal notification to customers on the positive tests,
The strain of Listeria from one of Blue Bell’s ice cream products was linked to a strain found in five patients with listeriosis at a Kansas hospital during tests conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March 2015. That month, the CDC, FDA, and Blue Bell issued public recall notifications.
Later tests found Listeria contamination in another product made at Blue Bell’s plant in Broken Arrow, OK. A second recall announcement was made on March 23, 2015.
Inspections carried out by the FDA in March and April 2015 uncovered sanitation issues at the Brenham and Broken Arrow sites, including issues with the hot water supply needed to properly clean equipment and deteriorating factory conditions that allowed insanitary water to drip into product mix during the manufacturing process, the plea agreement said.
In turn, Blue Bell closed all of its manufacturing plants in April 2015 to clean and update its facilities. The DOJ said that the company has taken “significant steps” to improve its sanitation processes and implement a Listeria contamination testing program prior to shipment since the facilities reopened in late 2015.
“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,” Judy McMeekin, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs for the FDA, said in the release. “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 US marketplace.”