What did they know, and when did they know it?
It’s the question crucial to investigations from Watergate to Deflategate. And now it’s central in that other great crisis of our day: the great Blue Bell meltdown of 2015.
Admittedly, this is ice cream we’re talking about. But at least three deaths and countless sicknesses are now linked to Blue Bell. And when an iconic company shuts down its factories and launches a national recall – followed by signs the company knew of listeria contamination for two years – it’s hard to avoid a sense of scandal.
Mark Collette is an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle. It took some digging – including a freedom of information request – but he found Blue Bell knew listeria was present at one of its facilities for years:
“The company knew in 2013 – from its own testing programs I should say – that the plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma had positive tests for listeria on a whole bunch of non-food contact surfaces,” Collette tells the Standard.
It wasn’t just listeria, either. The FDA found dirty clothes worn by workers, water condensation dripping into products, and more.
“The real troubling part I think for most of the food safety experts that we’ve talked to is that after finding that listeria on those non-contact surfaces, it doesn’t appear that the company went and then tested the production lines, the ice cream pint fillers, the surfaces that do come into contact with food,” Collette says. “And that’s kind of a head-scratcher for people who are looking at this from the outside.”
But Blue Bell is starting to make some changes.
“They’re undertaking a huge amount of plant redesign initiatives,” Collette says. “They’re changing the way the plants are set-up to make it harder for pathogens to get on to these surfaces. They are doing some upgrades to ventilation systems, changing out floors and ceilings and equipment to eliminate some of those condensation issues.”
The ice cream company, however, knows that it’s time to clean up their act.
“They are really focused on moving forward… They’re now saying that they may not have ice cream back in stores for several months and that’s another hurt to the company because that’s their revenue source.”
This story was prepared with assistance by Brenda Lau.