The trial of former Blue Bell Creameries CEO Paul Kruse ended Monday with no unanimous verdict issued by the 12-strong jury. Kruse was being individually tried on five counts of wire fraud and one of conspiracy, each carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years, over his role in a 2015 listeria outbreak that involved Blue Bell Creameries products.
Ten of the 12 jurors had voted ‘not guilty’, which was not enough for a unanimous verdict, resulting in a mistrial. It is unclear whether the prosecution will pursue a new trial against the former C-suite executive.
In 2015, Kruse was at the helm of the company and is thought to have been behind the ice cream-maker’s strategy to not publicly recall unsafe products until March. They had become aware of listeria contamination concerns in February.
The trial heard last week from Blue Bell’s current president, Richard Dickson, who testified that Kruse had dismissed his suggestion to release a public statement over why ice cream delivered to clients was being withdrawn by delivery drivers. School and hospital officials also testified that they were only told about ‘machine problems’ as the reason why products were being retrieved.
The trial also revealed that Kruse was likely working with federal regulators in February as the contamination at Blue Bell’s South Carolina plant was discovered. Prosecutors however presented an email from a Texas health department official, who wrote that ‘Blue Bell is now hesitant to issue a public recall notice’ as that would ‘not be in their best interest’ and ‘they feel the risk to the public is minimal’ and ‘they are not aware of any illnesses'. The prosecution then argued that Kruse was concerned that customers ‘might run away from all his products’ if they knew of the contamination, which constituted fraud.
But Kruse’s defence attorney, Chris Flood, told the jury that the former CEO couldn’t be guilty of wire fraud, because Blue Bell refunded the money to clients whose ice cream was withdrawn. The US federal law states that a person guilty of fraud ‘intentionally devised or participated in a scheme to defraud another out of money’.
After the trial had concluded, Flood told the media: “I want to thank the jurors for all their hard work. It was clear to a lot of them that Paul Kruse never intended to cheat Blue Bell’s customers out of money. They believed that Paul Kruse was doing the best he could with the information he had at the time.”
Blue Bell Creameries already pleaded guilty in 2020 to distributing listeria-contaminated products and paid close to US$20m in criminal fines and to resolve False Claims Act allegations. The company told DairyReporter that it considered the matter closed for the business, adding that ‘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…, and earned the internationally recognized BRCGS safety certification,” a spokesperson added. “Food safety is out highest priority, and we continue to be vigilant every day.”