On June 28, a very brief video clip was posted to social media that showed a teenage girl at a Walmart in Lufkin with a carton of Blue Bell ice cream. In the clip, the top of the container is off, and the girl licks the surface of it before replacing the lid and putting it back in the freezer for an unsuspecting consumer to purchase. The video quickly went viral—just one of the many tweets that shared it has more than 12 million views—and spawned a whole lot of outrage.
What kinda psychopathic behavior is this?! pic.twitter.com/T8AIdGpmuS
— Optimus Primal (@BlindDensetsu) June 29, 2019
The list of outraged people includes everyone from random people on Twitter who demanded jail time to governor Greg Abbott, who called the girl a “despicable criminal.” Texas law enforcement mentioned a potential felony charge for tampering with a consumer product.
Police track down Texas teen who licked Blue Bell ice cream then put it back in Walmart freezer
Glad they caught this despicable criminal
Behavior like this is unacceptable in Texas & is rightfully punished
Don't Mess With Texas… or with Blue Bellhttps://t.co/qLTVIa4uv1
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) July 8, 2019
Because the girl, who is from San Antonio, is a minor, she wasn’t named and won’t be charged with a felony—instead, the case will go through the juvenile justice system. But given the willingness of Lufkin police to talk about potential felony charges and the governor’s tweet, it’s fair to wonder if she’d be facing up to twenty years in jail had she been 17 at the time she licked the ice cream.
To be certain, licking a container of ice cream at the supermarket is gross and unsanitary, and no one should do it. But it is strange to think that the first person to face criminal charges related to contaminated Blue Bell ice cream would be a kid who posted a video of herself pulling a dumb prank, and not any of the people who were at the company when their product literally killed people.
The 2015 Blue Bell listeria outbreak wasn’t an unavoidable accident of fate. The FDA investigation into the company contained multiple observations related to practices that smack of negligence—a failure to properly sanitize equipment; a failure to prevent condensation from dripping into the product, potentially spreading disease; a failure to clean surfaces that products were prepared on; and more. Three people died, but no one from Blue Bell faced criminal responsibility for what happened. (The state fined the company $850,000, $675,000 of which was eligible to be forgiven, following an agreement between Blue Bell and the Texas Department of State Health Services.)
When Blue Bell returned to production following the listeria outbreak, Abbott didn’t issue harsh tweets about the company’s behavior, or condemn the factory conditions the FDA found during its investigation as “unacceptable.” Rather, he celebrated the company’s return, declaring that “Texans can rejoice today as Blue Bell ice cream makes its long-awaited comeback in freezer aisles across the state.”
It’s unclear what punishment the kid in the viral video will face. The actual health risks of eating ice cream that someone licked are relatively low—ice cream specifically mitigates some of the possible viruses, like the flu or mono, that could be spread through saliva, with the temperature potentially freezing and destroying any bacteria present, and the sugar dehydrating it, according to the New York Times. (It’s worth noting that, while an account claiming to be that of the girl who licked the ice cream wrote that she had the flu when she did it, police found that it was posted by a “catfish” account that wasn’t actually the girl in question.)
If authorities and lawyers are going to be involved in the incident, the juvenile justice system is probably a better one to handle it than the criminal justice system. Ultimately, what the girl in the video is guilty of is immature behavior. It’s a disgusting prank, but a lot of the food we eat goes through worse—it’s likely you’ve been served a meal at a restaurant that’s fallen on the floor by a server who didn’t want to ask the kitchen to remake it, for instance. Criminal justice reforms have advanced in Texas based on the principle that “You lock up the people that you’re afraid of, not the ones you’re mad at,” as state senator John Whitmire put it, and we’re just mad at the girl in the video. She’s doing something gross, we could end up on the receiving of her dumb prank, and she sure looks like she’s having fun doing it. It’s fair to be mad at her, but it’s a weird facet of human psychology that people are more upset with her than we are with Blue Bell itself for its handling of the 2015 listeria outbreak that killed three people.
If there’s anything to worry about, it’s the idea that the prank may have inspired copycats. One of them, a 36-year-old man in Louisiana, was arrested on Saturday; another, a self-described “model/actress” in New York, posted a video of herself doing the same, which she later deleted after apologizing, saying that she staged the video and bought the ice cream she licked herself. It’s unlikely that there’s a true epidemic of copycat ice cream lickers—if there were, we’d have seen more than just two videos—but this is still unacceptable behavior, especially from grown adults.
But gross or not, licking the top of an open ice cream container isn’t going to kill anybody—and given the company’s recent history, when we’re talking about the potential health risks of contaminated Blue Bell ice cream, that’s actually where the bar should be set.