Former Blue Bell CEO stands trial over ice cream contamination

By Teodora Lyubomirova contact

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/ftwitty
GettyImages/ftwitty

Related tags: Food safety, Listeria, Ice cream

Seven years after the listeria outbreak that infected 10 people in four US states, Blue Bell Creameries’ former president and CEO Paul Kruse is being tried on six charges.

He is individually accused of covering up the contamination, which in 2020 forced the manufacturer to pay almost $20m in criminal charges.

Kruse was initially facing a total of seven counts, but the trial judge dismissed count 6 and struck the allegations in paragraph 43 at the request of the Department of Justice (DOJ). The former CEO now faces five counts of fraud and one of conspiracy.

The trial, which is expected to last three to four weeks, began on Monday (August 1) when a jury of 12 men and four women was chosen to preside over the case.

The case examines a number of emails from Blue Bell employees at the time, some of them dating as far back as February 19, 2015.

Blue Bell Creameries' spokesperson told DairyReporter: "Paul Kruse’s trial involves events that took place more than seven years ago, and we are a different and better Blue Bell today. We learned a great deal from this difficult chapter in our company’s history and made substantial improvements to our safety and testing processes as a result.

"Mr Kruse is no longer an employee or a member of the board at Blue Bell, and this trial is between the United States government and Mr Kruse. The US Department of Justice conducted an extensive five-year investigation of these events, and the resolution announced in May 2020 closed the matter for the company and all other current and former Blue Bell employees.

"We trust the process of the American judicial system, and a jury of Mr. Kruse’s peers will now review the facts and make a decision in his case."

Back story

Kruse’s role in the 2015 listeria outbreak is being closely examined after the company he helmed at the time was accused of failing to disclose to retailers, distributors and the wider public that some of its products had tested positive for listeria before the outbreak had spread.

In 2020, Blue Bell Creameries pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products and paid a criminal fine and forfeiture amount totaling US$17.25m, with additional US$2.1m to resolve civil False Claims Act allegations.

The plea agreement states that officials had notified Blue Bell in February 2015 that two of its ice cream products from the company’s Brenham, Texas plant had tested positive for listeria monocytogenes.

“Blue Bell directed its delivery route drivers to remove remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, but the company did not recall the products or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential listeria contamination,”​ the DOJ said. “Two weeks after receiving notification of the first positive Listeria tests, Texas state officials informed Blue Bell that additional testing confirmed listeria in a third product.  Blue Bell again chose not to issue any formal notification to customers regarding the positive tests.”

The company issued a product recall on March 13, 2015 when the FDA linked listeria-contaminated Blue Bell ice cream products to five cases of listeriosis at a Kansas hospital, with a second recall issued on March 23 after further investigation at the Broken Arrow plant in Oklahoma uncovered another contaminated product.

But it was only on April 20, 2015 when Blue Bell recalled all products and closed its facilities for ‘intensive cleaning’, gradually reopening them through November 2015.

Prior to the 2015 outbreak, the manufacturer had other positive tests for listeria, with cases linked to illnesses dating as far back as January 2010 through January 2015.

The US Food and Drug Administration had conducted several inspections across Blue Bell plants, with official concluding in 2009 that 'all reasonable precautions are not taken to ensure that production procedures do not contribute contamination from any source'.

Reflecting on the company's operations today, a Blue Bell Creameries spokesperson said: "Over the last seven years, Blue Bell has worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of our ice cream. We have upgraded our production facilities, strengthened employee training and safety procedures, implemented comprehensive, internal and independent testing programs of our products, and facilities, and earned the internationally-recognized BRCGS safety certification. Food safety is our highest priority, and we continue to be vigilant every day."

The trial continues.

Last edited 08/05/2022 at 09:22 BST to include a statement from Blue Bell Creameries.

Related topics: Regulation & Safety

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