AUSTIN, TEXAS – Ice cream manufacturer Blue Bell Creameries LP, Brenham, Texas, has been ordered to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties for the shipment of contaminated products linked to a 2015 Listeria outbreak. The company pled guilty to the charges this past May.
The fine is the largest criminal penalty following a conviction in a food safety case, according to the US Department of Justice.
“The sentence imposed today sends a clear message to food manufacturers that the Department of Justice will take appropriate actions when contaminated food products endanger consumers,” said Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Division.
Texas state officials notified Blue Bell Creameries in February 2015 that two ice cream products from the company’s Brenham, Texas, plant tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, according to the plea agreement. Blue Bell management directed its delivery route drivers to remove remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, but the company did not conduct a recall or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential Listeria contamination. Two weeks after receiving notification of the first positive Listeria tests, Texas state officials informed Blue Bell that additional testing confirmed Listeria in a third product. Blue Bell again chose not to notify customers about the positive tests.
Tests conducted in March 2015 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked the strain of Listeria in one of the Blue Bell ice cream products to a strain that sickened five patients at a Kansas hospital with listeriosis. The FDA, CDC and Blue Bell all issued public recall notifications on March 13, 2015. Subsequent tests confirmed Listeria contamination in a product made at another Blue Bell plant in Broken Arrow, Okla., which led to a second recall announcement on March 23, 2015.
Paul Kruse, the former president of Blue Bell Creameries, was separately charged with seven felony counts related to efforts to conceal from customers what the company knew about the contamination. Those charges were dismissed in July.