The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says Blue Bell Creameries, the ice cream maker that recalled all of its products last month, knew that listeria was present in one of its factories as early as 2013.
According to the FDA, Blue Bell failed to adequately improve its cleaning and manufacturing practices, the New York Times reports. In a statement, Blue Bell acknowledged testing in 2013 showed that listeria was present in its plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and that its cleaning methods were insufficient at the time.
Blue Bell said in an email, “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 has discontinued the single-serve ice cream cups that prompted the initial recall in March and the machinery used to make those products will also be removed.
After earlier recalls of specific products, Blue Bell issued a companywide recall of all its products last month, shut down its factories and ceased production of all ice cream products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has linked Blue Bell’s contaminated ice cream to 10 illnesses, including three deaths in Kansas hospital patients. Cases of listeria date back as early as 2011, according to the agency.
Federal health inspectors say they found evidence of listeria on the floors and on other nonfood surfaces in the kitchen and processing room of the Broken Arrow plant in 2013. The FDA documents show that just two months ago, the company still had not demonstrated that it had changed its cleaning and sanitizing practices to prevent future contamination, 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 report said.
Though healthy children and adults do not usually become seriously ill from listeria, it can cause severe infections in infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, according to the CDC. Listeria infection can lead to miscarriages and stillbirths. The symptoms of listeriosis, the illness caused by listeria bacteria, include fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms. Symptoms can begin from three to 70 days after listeria is ingested.
The Times reports that Blue Bell has been unable to pinpoint the source of the listeria, despite weeks of tests. Listeria is can be present in such sources as raw milk and it can be tracked into a facility on the sole of a shoe and can then linger for years in cool, moist areas.
Blue Bell is not the only ice cream maker to recall its products due to listeria. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, based in Ohio, recalled all of its products last month after listeria was detected in its ice cream. No illnesses had been reported, but the company closed its plant in Columbus, Ohio for disinfection and testing, the Times reports. Jeni’s believes the listeria problem arose in a machine that fills pint-size containers. The company is training employees on new safety procedures.