Ex-Blue Bell boss Paul Kruse strikes plea deal
Around three years since Paul Kruse first faced criminal charges over his role in the 2015 listeria outbreak, the ex-Blue Bell CEO has struck a plea deal with the US Department of Justice.
Kruse was at the helm of Blue Bell Creameries when several cases of listeriosis were traced back to some of its products. The company was notified by state health services officials that samples from its South Carolina factory had tested positive for listeria monocytogenes; later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced listeriosis cases to the company’s ice cream products. Blue Bell issued two product recalls during March 2015, but it was only in late April 2015 when the manufacturer recalled all of its products and shut its factories for disinfection.
At the time, the company was blamed for failing to disclose to distributors, retailers and the wider public why it had suddenly started to withdraw some of its products from stores as well as hospitals and schools. Testifying in 2022 during Kruse’s most recent trial, Richard Dickson, current Blue Bell chief, told the court that his then boss had told him ‘we’re not quite ready’ to come clean about the situation, raising questions over Kruse’s role in the handling of the crisis.
The former CEO was most recently tried in court in August 2022, when he faced five counts of fraud and one of conspiracy. But that trial ended in mistrial after jurors failed to reach a unanimous decision.
A new trial had been set for April 2023, but the plea deal struck between Kruse and the prosecution now settles the case against the former Blue Bell president.
According to the plea deal document, Kruse will plead guilty to one misdemeanor charge. Chris Flood, Kruse's attorney, told DairyReporter that all previous charges against his client had been dismissed and this new misdemeanor charge had been filed instead.
In signing the plea, Kruse has admitted to introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce – specifically, shipping contaminated ice cream between January 1, 2015 and March 13, 2015 (when the first product recall was issued). He has waived all rights to appeal and will pay a fine of $100,000 – ‘a fair and reasonable sentence considering all of the facts and circumstances of this case’, the agreement reads. Kruse is also prohibited from requesting information about the investigation and prosecution of this case under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974.
The agreement was struck on March 2, 2023.
Blue Bell Creameries today
Blue Bell Creameries re-opened its factories in November 2015 and continues to operate today. The company pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts in 2020, paying a fine and forfeiture of $19.35 in total.
In a statement shared with DairyReporter in August 2022 during Kruse’s ongoing trial, a company spokesperson said the firm was ‘a different and better Blue Bell’. “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,” stressing that Kruse was ‘no longer an employee or a member of the board’.
“Over the last seven years, Blue Bell has worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of our ice cream,” the spokesperson added. “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.”
This article was amended March 15, 2023 to address factual inaccuracies in this report, where it was incorrectly stated that Paul Kruse had pleaded guilty to conspiracy, a charge from the previous indictment, which had been dismissed. Paul Kruse has instead pleaded guilty to one newly-filed misdemeanor count.