Bacteria found on a single production line in Blue Bell’s Brenham creamery has been linked to five illnesses, resulting in three deaths, that have occurred over the past year in a Kansas hospital. As a result, Blue Bell issued the first recall in the company’s 108-year history on Saturday.
The bacteria that was found on the production line in Brenham is called Listeria monocytogene, which is usually transmitted through contaminated food, especially dairy products. The illness it causes is called listeriosis, which developed in the five patients. The Blue Bell outbreak is the first one of 2015.
The five reported cases of listeriosis all occurred in a single hospital, Via Christi, in Wichita, Kansas, and all of the infected patients were older adults, a group at higher risk of severe listeriosis complications. Each of the affected patients was already in the hospital for unrelated issues, and symptoms of the bacterial infection started developing between January 2014 and January 2015, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control.
The timing of the five cases and the investigation of Blue Bell’s Brenham facility by the Texas Department of State Health Services is a bit confusing. The illnesses in Kansas have recently been linked to contaminated Blue Bell products, but since they occurred over a year’s time, they didn’t immediately raise enough concern for the FDA to launch an investigation.
It was the discovery of listeria bacteria in Blue Bell products being held in a South Carolina distribution center on February 12, during a routine check, that prompted the investigation of the production line in Brenham and the eventual recall.
A strain of Listeria bacteria was found in two Blue Bell products being held in the South Carolina distribution center during the routine sampling—Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and Great Divide Bars. A very similar strain of the bacteria is what led to the illness in the Kansas patients, four of whom had consumed hospital-prepared milkshakes made with Scoops, a Blue Bell ice cream product.
Those three products are all made on a single production line in Blue Bell’s facility in Brenham. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Paul Kruse, Blue Bell’s CEO, said the production line wasn’t in use on February 12, when the contaminated products were found in South Carolina, and isn’t in use today.
“It’s a complicated piece of machinery, it’s been down for about a month and a half, and what we’re likely going to do with it is throw it out the window, so to speak,” Kruse said in an interview with the Wichita Eagle.
Kruse also said all of the products made on that production line were sent to hospitals and distribution centers, not to grocery stores, and have since been recovered.
Even though Blue Bell says the contaminated products have all been reclaimed, the CDC warns that more cases of listeriosis linked to the Brenham production line could arise, since symptoms take anywhere from three to seventy days to show up.
In healthy patients—if caught early—listeriosis is treatable with antibiotics. One of the largest outbreaks of the infections occurred in 2011 and resulted in 33 deaths, all of which were traced back to cantaloupes from a single farm in Colorado.
No legal action has been taken against Blue Bell yet, but Fred Pritzker, a food safety lawyer who has worked with listeria lawsuits in the past, told the Food Poisoning Bulletin that the production problems “will be heavily scrutinized by plaintiffs’ attorneys.”
“We’ll want to know exactly what was happening with the machinery and what precautions the company took to protect consumers from contamination,” Pritzker said. “How bad was it and what did the company know?”
A full list of the recalled products is available through Blue Bell’s website.