Commentary

Blue Bell Recalls Entire Line; CEO Vows To 'Get It Right'

With federal officials identifying at least 10 cases of people with listeria illnesses linked to its products, Blue Bell Creameries has expanded a series of limited recent recalls to everything on the shelves of retailers in 23 states, primarily in the South and Southwest, produced at all of its facilities. It also sells its ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and other goodies in some international markets.

Saying he was “heartbroken over the situation” and apologizing to “all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers,” CEO and president Paul Kruse talks about the recall in a video message on the company website. An accompanying text reveals details about what went wrong and steps the company is taking to remediate the problems and prevent outbreaks in the future.

“We are going to get it right,” Kruse concludes.

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“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one person in Arizona and another in Oklahoma had been sickened by bacteria with DNA fingerprints matching those collected from Blue Bell ice cream samples,” Brady Dennis reports in the Washington Post. “Previously, three patients in Texas and five others in Kansas have been linked to the outbreak… . All 10 patients were hospitalized, officials said, and three in Kansas died.”

Listeria is the third leading cause of death from food poisoning. Although Listeria itself is common in the environment, it rarely causes infections in people (called listeriosis), according to the CDC. Ninety percent of the cases affect pregnant women and their babies, people with weakened immune systems, and those 65 years or older.

The New York Times’ Rachel Abrams and Hiroko Tabuchi trackthe decision-making over the past month at the family-run company, with headquarters in the Brenham, Texas, kicking off with a scene conveying the sense of urgency inside an HEB grocery store in San Antonio when the alert came down late Monday.

Analysts tell the reporters it will be difficult to restore consumer confidence in time for the summer season despite all the good will the company has built up in its 108-year history.

“When there’s a recall and somebody does something quickly and when they handle it properly, we forgive it,” says SupermarketGuru.com’s Phil Lempert. “When it’s the entire product line or the entire company,” he said, “people are very concerned.”

Gene Grabowski, who has been a ‘crisis guru’ to food manufacturers in about 150 recalls, has been advising the company, according to the Austin American-Statesman’s Gary Dinges in a piece filed Friday, before the total recall.  

“This company cares more about the health and well-being of consumers than any company I've ever worked for,” he told the newspaper. “This is a company that’s always trying to do the right thing.”

It has not gone unnoticed over the years.

“Brand loyalty for this company is as great as I’ve ever seen,” Grabowski said. “Consumers trust Blue Bell, they like Blue Bell, and they want to see the company succeed.”

“Genetic tests link listeria bacteria from two separate Blue Bell factories to at least six cases of listeriosis dating back to 2010,” Dr. Robert Tauxe, an expert on food-borne diseases at the CDC, tells NBC News’ Maggie Fox. 

“Blue Bell is routinely a clean place,” Tauxe says. “But this outbreak puts Blue Bell on notice and I think it puts the entire ice cream industry on notice. They need to worry a good deal about listeria.”

“Food-safety experts say listeria is a particularly tricky and virulent pathogen that blossoms in refrigerated environments, and has previously prompted food companies to shutter plants entirely since it is difficult to destroy even through exhaustive plant cleanings,” write Annie Gasparro and Jesse Newman in the Wall Street Journal

“Once the bacteria gets into a plant, it can grow very rapidly and is really difficult to eradicate,” Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food-safety cases, tells them.

“Earlier this month, Sabra Dipping Co. announced a recall of 30,000 cases of its Classic Hummus, also due to possible listeria contamination. No illnesses have been linked to that recall,” the AP reminds us.

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