BRENHAM, TEXAS — Blue Bell ice cream is making its return to retail store shelves, just four months after Brenham-based Blue Bell Creameries voluntarily recalled all of its products in the wake of a deadly Listeria outbreak. The company said it has implemented a number of procedures and testing to ensure its products are safe, but will consumers buy them?
Blue Bell’s return to form is key to the growth of the mature ice cream and frozen desserts market in the United States, said Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md., research firm. Blue Bell had sales of about $680 million in 2014, though it was only available in just over a fourth of U.S. supermarkets. As the nation’s fourth largest retail marketer of ice cream and frozen desserts, Blue Bell together with Nestle S.A., Unilever and Wells Enterprises represent almost 55% of the U.S. ice cream market, which generated estimated sales of $25.7 billion last year. If Blue Bell bounces back and maintains or grows its customer base, total sales of ice cream and frozen desserts in the United States are expected to exceed $27.3 billion in 2018, Packaged Facts said.
Blue Bell on April 20 voluntarily recalled all of its products, including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks, made at all of its facilities. On June 9, the company said it had provided the Food and Drug Administration a detailed list of corrective actions that were under way in response to the agency’s inspection reports of Blue Bell’s production facilities in Brenham, Texas, Broken Arrow, Okla., and Sylacauga, Ala. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on June 10 said it had ended its investigation of the Listeriosis outbreak that affected a reported 10 people, including 3 who died. The investigation indicated various Blue Bell brand products were the source of the outbreak.
The recall, which was Blue Bell’s first in its 108-year history, led to a number of cost-cutting measures, including the reduction of 37% of the company’s workforce in a decision the company’s president and chief executive officer called “agonizing.” Soon after, Blue Bell secured an investment from Texas billionaire Sid Bass.
To regain consumer trust, Blue Bell has shared detailed information on its web site related to new safety procedures at manufacturing plants and has posted regular updates and videos on social media. An April 23 post on the company’s Facebook page said, “We wanted to update you on our fresh start. We’re embarking on an intensive cleaning program while we simultaneously conduct a new training program for employees at all four of our production facilities.”
And on May 7, the company tweeted: “We again want to thank everyone for their support these past few weeks. But, we don’t have a firm timeline for when we will be back. It will be several months at a minimum. We know we have to get this right.”
Though the road to recovery may be rocky for Blue Bell, the company appears to have plenty of support. The brand’s Facebook page has 203,000 followers, some of whom have championed the ice cream brand’s return with such emphatic comments as “I am lost without my Blue Bell” and “Can’t wait for my first bite of the ‘real ice cream.’ All others are far inferior to Blue Bell!”Of course, there are negative comments, too: “It is a dirty company and I would never trust them again.”