Blue Bell Creameries said that tests it has been running on its products and in its three manufacturing facilities have shown no signs of Listeria contamination – an indication that overhauling and sanitizing its production processes have been effective in preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness.
Still, it’s bound to be a bittersweet New Year for the Texas-based ice cream maker, which had to recall all of its products and shut down its production last year after a deadly outbreak of listeriosis was traced to its ice cream. The outbreak sickened at least 10 people in four states and was blamed for the deaths of three people in Kansas.
The company is under criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for its handling of the listeria problem, which investigators found affected the company’s production facilities in Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama. The investigation was triggered by the discovery of documents indicating Blue Bell executives and managers may have known about the listeria risks but failed to act upon them.
Federal investigators also found that the same strain of Listeria had been lurking in Blue Bell’s factories over a five-year period of time
While it cooperates with federal authorities in the investigation, Blue Bell is also trying to rebuild its ice cream empire, which just a year ago spanned 23 states and included dozens of products.
In August, Blue Bell began reintroducing some of its products to the market with a five-phase plan, starting with stores in Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., as well as Austin, Brenham, and Houston, Texas. The company is now in its fifth phase of the distribution plan.
Assuring the public that its products are safe to eat is key to Blue Bell’s comeback plan. On Friday, the company issued a statement saying that the measures it has taken to sanitize its facilities and test for Listeria and other bacteria are working.
“The entire purpose of our enhanced environmental testing is to identify locations where bacteria could be found in our facility in order to properly clean and sanitize the surface and prevent contamination,” Blue Bell said.
“We have tested and will continue to test every batch of ice cream produced,” Blue Bell added. “No products produced have tested positive (for listeria). No products are shipped to stores until tests confirm they are safe. We will continue to work closely with our regulatory agencies, as we have throughout this process.”