By GARY DINGES AND SEBASTIAN HERRERA
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Three years after a health scare that nearly spelled the end of the line for a beloved Texas brand, Blue Bell has rebounded – and is, in fact, growing and expanding.
The Austin American-Statesman reports the Brenham-based company, which got its start 111 years ago, shut down production for a time in 2015 and recalled 8 million gallons of ice cream after reports of listeria started coming in. In all, 10 people fell ill. Three died.
During the shutdown, the company deep-cleaned its three plants – in Brenham, Sylacauga, Alabama, and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma – replaced some equipment and reworked procedures to remedy investigators’ concerns. The state of Texas says it is pleased with the company’s progress and, as of this year, has closed out an enforcement agreement it had with Blue Bell that had allowed operations to resume with expanded monitoring.
“We’re now regulating Blue Bell just as we would any other ice cream maker,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Blue Bell has certainly made strides to improve their manufacturing process and limit the chance that their products could make someone sick.”
Health officials in Alabama and Oklahoma said last week that their states also were treating Blue Bell as they would any similar company.
Because Blue Bell abided by the terms of Texas’ enforcement agreement, it wound up only paying $175,000 of an $850,000 fine levied by the state. The remaining $675,000 was forgiven, according to a letter from Jonathan Huss, assistant commissioner in the Texas Department of State Health Services Consumer Protection Division, to Blue Bell President Ricky Dickson.
Van Deusen characterized issues found at Blue Bell’s Brenham plant in recent months as minor. An American-Statesman review of state inspection reports from the past three years found just a few concerns mentioned. Those included condensation dripping from the ceiling, cobwebs in a dry storage area, insects in a floor crack, ingredients being unboxed in close proximity to cleanup operations, ice buildup on doors and dusty air intakes.
Also, in one case from June, the state and Blue Bell received a report that a customer found two pieces of metal in a half-gallon of Southern Blackberry Cobbler ice cream. The metal, according to the report, appeared to be “two halves of a decorative spoon collar” – a type of spoon not used in Blue Bell’s facilities.
Blue Bell spokeswoman Jenny Van Dorf said the company has acted quickly whenever inspectors have pointed out possible problems.
“We are pleased with the steps that have been taken in our facilities and confident that we are producing safe products that our customers can enjoy,” she said. “Along with the enhancements we have made to our facilities and equipment, we have a robust cleaning and sanitation program and manufacturing processes that are designed to ensure that the products we produce are safe.”
While the worst has passed, it’s possible that Blue Bell might not be done facing fallout from the listeria scare.
Some, including those who were sickened, sued the company. In Delaware, a judge ruled in July that a lawsuit claiming the company’s board members didn’t do enough to ensure its plants weren’t producing contaminated products could proceed, according to Bloomberg news service.
CBS News reported in 2015 that the U.S. Justice Department was looking into Blue Bell, however, the agency never publicly confirmed that. Three years later, Bill Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer who is an expert on foodborne illness and in 2016 helped settle a case related to the listeria outbreak, said Blue Bell could still face consequences.
Justice Department investigations can take years, Marler said, although the department has broad discretion on whether any criminal charges are filed.
Marler said that while condensation, leaks and other small infractions happen at many refrigerated food plants, Blue Bell’s fractured brand cannot afford more of those issues.
“If the inspectors are finding those kinds of violations and are noting them, the reason they are noting them is not to be clean freaks. It’s because they know those are potential entry points for listeria,” Marler said. “If inspection after inspection is showing condensation time after time, then they didn’t get the message.”
Blue Bell continues to have a loyal following, but that could be threatened if the brand develops a reputation of not taking potential health risks seriously, Marler said.
But Blue Bell isn’t dwelling on the past. Instead, it’s charging forward. The company, which dramatically shrank its footprint after the recall, is back in growth mode.
Van Dorf said 59 distribution centers are now up and running, serving customers in all or part of 22 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming.
Blue Bell recently announced a new 14,000-square-foot distribution facility will open in Suffolk, Virginia, next year. A grant from the Suffolk Economic Development Authority helped seal the deal.
The plants in Brenham, Sylacauga and Broken Arrow are all running, Van Dorf said, with plans to expand each one in the coming months and years.
The Brenham facilities, in particular, are due for a boost. In May, the Brenham City Council agreed to submit a nomination on Blue Bell’s behalf to the governor’s office for possible Texas Enterprise Zone incentives.
Blue Bell said it intended to spend $40 million on its Brenham plant alone in the next five years, Bryan/College Station TV station KBTX reported.
“There are significant expansion projects underway at all three production facilities,” Van Dorf said. “In Brenham, we are in the early stages of an expansion that will include new construction, facility improvements and equipment upgrades. These projects will allow us to add employees, bring new products to market and expand into more territories.
“We believe our expansion projects show the commitment to the communities where our facilities are located, our employees and the quality of our operations.”
In addition to expanding its facilities, Blue Bell has been steadily expanding its product lineup, which was trimmed back after the recall. Today, there are more than 50 flavors in grocery store freezers. The Fudge Bar, a longtime customer favorite, is one of the latest additions, making its return a couple months ago, Van Dorf said.
Blue Bell is big business in Brenham, and its recent and future growth are great news for the area, according to Page Michel, president and CEO of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.
She said Blue Bell’s success affects every sector of the local economy. Currently, Van Dorf said, Blue Bell has about 720 employees in Brenham – approximately a quarter of its national workforce, which numbers 3,000.
When the ice cream maker temporarily shut down in 2015, it resulted in hundreds of layoffs that affected local industries such as manufacturing, retail and tourism. Blue Bell’s Brenham plant saw more than 200,000 tourists in the year prior to shutting down, Michel said. Then it went to zero.
Things have gotten better since then, Michel said.
“There’s a sense of vibrancy and optimism again,” she said. “Because it’s a small town, and the company is more than a century old, it has a very personal impact.”