Listeria Outbreak: Inside a Major Ice Cream Company's Recall

Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries is recalling its entire line of ice cream and frozen treats because they could be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria and major human pathogen that causes the rare bacterial disease listeriosis, a serious infection that has a case-fatality rate of about 20 percent. The decision follows weeks of gradual recalls and eight known cases of Listeria infection in Kansas and Texas.


"We’re committed to doing the 100 percent right thing, and the best way to do that is to take all of our products off the market until we can be confident that they are all safe,” said Paul Kruse, Blue Bell CEO and president, about the company's voluntary recall. He added, "We cannot say with certainty how Listeria was introduced to our facilities."

Listeriosis causes mild to severe flu-like symptoms in pregnant women, who can transmit the illness to their unborn child. Fetal infection can result in miscarriage, premature birth, blood poisoning and birth defects. Infected healthy individuals may only suffer short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headaches, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. The two primary clinical manifestations of listeriosis are sepsis and meningitis, the latter of which is often complicated by encephalitis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths occur due to listeriosis annually in the United States. In 2013, the average annual incidence of listeriosis in the United States was 0.26 cases per 100,000 people.

While infection is rare, Listeria is strong: it can grow with or without oxygen and in temperatures as cold as the refrigerator or as warm as the human body. Commonly found in soil and stream water, Listeria has been found in a variety of foods, including pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, foods made from milk, processed foods, uncooked meats, uncooked vegetables and fruit such as apples and cantaloupes. The largest listeriosis outbreak in U.S. history occurred in 2011, when tainted cantaloupes from a single farm resulted in 33 deaths, 147 illnesses and one miscarriage across 28 states.

An "enhanced sampling program" initiated by Blue Bell revealed that its Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream half gallons produced on March 17, 2015 and March 27, 2015 contained the bacteria. "This means Blue Bell has now had several positive tests for Listeria in different places and plants," the company said in a statement.

"We are heartbroken about this situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers," said Kruse. "Our entire history has been about making the very best and highest quality ice cream and we intend to fix this problem. We want enjoying our ice cream to be a source of joy and pleasure, never a cause for concern, so we are committed to getting this right."

"As Blue Bell moves forward, we are implementing a procedure called 'test and hold' for all products made at all of our manufacturing facilities. This means that all products released will be tested first and held for release to the market only after the tests show they are safe."

To prevent Listeria food contamination, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends the following:

  • Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk, and do not eat foods that have unpasteurized milk in them.
  • Wash hands, knives, countertops, and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods. Rinse raw produce thoroughly under running tap water before eating.
  • Keep uncooked meats, poultry and seafood separate from vegetables, fruits, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Thoroughly cook raw food from animal sources, such as meat, poultry or seafood to a safe internal temperature.
  • Wash hands, knives, countertops, and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.
  • Consume perishable and ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible.
  • People in higher risk groups should heat hot dogs, cold cuts and deli meats before eating them.

For more information about the Blue Bell recall, visit www.bluebell.comFor more information about Listeria, visit www.cdc.gov/listeria.

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