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FDA Report Reveals Blue Bell Creameries Was Aware of Listeria Contamination at One of Its Facilities Back in 2013

Filed May 12th, 2015 Julie Fidler

Blue Bell Creameries recalled all of its ice cream products last month after several consumers were sickened by Listeria, but the company has known about the presence of the pathogen in one of its facilities since 2013.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Blue Bell was aware that Listeria had been found in its Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, plant in 2013, but failed to adequately improve its cleaning and manufacturing practices, the agency said in a report viewed by The New York Times (The Times). The company acknowledged the revelation in a statement obtained by The Times, saying its cleaning methods were insufficient at the time.

“As is standard procedure for any such positive results, the company would immediately clean the surfaces and swab until the tests were negative,” according to the statement Blue Bell provided in an email to The Times.

“We thought our cleaning process took care of any problems, but in hindsight, it was not adequate, which is why we are currently conducting such a comprehensive re-evaluation of all our operations.”

Blue Bell recalled all of its ice cream products last month, shut down its factories and ceased production of all of its products. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), contamination linked to the company’s ice cream caused 10 illnesses, including three deaths in Kansas. There were also other illnesses dating back to 2011, The Times reported.

The newly released documents reveal federal health inspectors found evidence of Listeria on the floors and a number of other nonfood surfaces in the kitchen and processing room at the Broken Arrow plant in 2013. Just two months ago, the FDA said, Blue Bell had still “failed to demonstrate” that the company had changed its cleaning and sanitizing practices to prevent further spread of the dangerous bacterium, according to The Times.

“The plant is not constructed in such a manner as to prevent drip and condensate from contaminating food, food-contact surfaces and food-packaging materials,” the F.D.A. report said.

The nation’s third-largest ice cream producer and Southwestern favorite has yet to find the source of the contamination, despite weeks of tests. Listeria can linger in raw milk, in dirt on the soles of shoes, and in cool, moist areas of factories for years. While the pathogen cannot grow in freezing temperatures, it can survive, The Times reported.

“It can hide in the nooks and crannies of machinery, underneath a slime layer, say, and it can be hard to get rid of,” Dr. Rob Tauxe, deputy director of the C.D.C.’s division of food-borne, waterborne and environmental diseases, told The Times. Blue Bell’s 3,800 employees are being paid their full salaries, according to Joe Robertson, a spokesman for Blue Bell.

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