Richard Dickson, Blue Bell Creameries’ current president, testified against his former boss, Paul Kruse, who is standing a federal trial over his role in the alleged cover-up of a 2015 listeria outbreak that involved the company’s products.
Dickson revealed that he had been the subject of a federal investigation in 2019 - two years into his time as Blue Bell president - but had agreed to testify in this trial to avoid charges.
Revisiting the events of 2015, the then-vice-president of sales and marketing told the court that he had drafted a statement on behalf of the company, but upon reading it, Kruse had responded that ‘we’re not quite ready’ to disclose the information to the public. At that time, delivery drivers had been dispatched to withdraw deliveries from clients, including schools and hospitals, over ‘machine problems’.
Speaking in court, the current Blue Bell Creameries president stated that the company had known of 'unsafe ice cream bars' in February, but had only told the public of the magnitude of the listeria contamination in all affected products in mid-March.
The trial also revealed that Kruse had reported the contamination discovered at the company’s South Carolina plant in February to the Food and Drugs Administration's Reportable Food Registry.
Dickson also told the court that he still considered Kruse ‘a friend’.
The current president, who has worked at Blue Bell since 1981, replaced Kruse at the helm of the company in 2017, and has guided the company into resolving False Claims Act allegations, paying a total of US$17.25m in criminal fines and forfeiture. “I am honored by the board’s confidence in me and humbled by the opportunity to lead this great company after a man who I admire and respect, Paul Kruse,” Dickson said in a press statement released at the time.
The court also heard from Andy Kollman, the then quality control manager for the Brenham, TX plant. He testified that Kruse had instructed him to discontinue the company’s bacteria testing program, after in 2011 Kollman had made the then-CEO aware that ice cream that had been released to the public had tested positive for listeria.
Other testimonies came from representatives from schools, hospitals and restaurants who had purchased Blue Bell ice cream in 2015. They told the court that none of their patients, students or customers had become sick, but the way the company had handled the scandal had caused them to stop buying from Blue Bell.
Blue Bell Creameries recently told DairyReporter that the company considered the matter closed and that the trial was between Kruse and the US government.
"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.
"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."
Kruse is individually facing six counts in total, each carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years.
The case will continue for at least two more weeks.