We All Scream: Cookie-Dough Supplier Behind Latest Blue Bell Recall

Michael GrossmanOctober 18, 2016 5 minutes

As of late September another recall has joined the list of recalled Blue Bell products, but this one appears to be related to their partner supplier Aspen Hills, Inc., who made the tainted cookie dough included in the newly recalled products. What does this mean for people who may have been exposed to potentially tainted ice cream?

Blue Bell Creameries: Recent Controversies

Blue Bell has populated Texan grocers' freezers since 1911, and has methodically expanded its market share throughout the U.S. since the 1960's. In 2014, its hold on the South looked something like this:

Blue Bell market map

That growing empire was halted in its tracks by the news of five listeriosis cases, three of them fatal, in Kansas. Further investigation at the time found another in Arizona, three others in Texas, and one more in Oklahoma. None of those states suffered fatalities, but all afflicted parties were hospitalized.

It was believed after looking at the details of the bacterial infections that Blue Bell ice creams were responsible for the initial exposure. Blue Bell temporarily closed its plant in Broken Arrow, OK, which was believed to be the source of the tainted products. During this time, it launched an "enhanced sampling program" that checked its other factories and found a variety of tainted ice creams and other frozen treats. There were several theories about the source of the bacteria; it could have been improperly-pasteurized milk or employees who did not wash their hands before entering the factory floor. There's also the risk of bacteria from the cows who initially produced the milk used by the factory, as well as possibly improper sterilization of the machinery between uses.

After a series of increasingly-embarrassing recalls, Blue Bell took the extraordinary measure of recalling its entire stock on April 20, 2015. Somewhere in the neighborhood of eight million gallons of product were pulled from all markets for summary disposal. This may have been the most prudent measure, but naturally it threw the company into a financial tailspin. It massively scaled back operations and thousands of employees were let go. Long-time customers around the South flocked to social media and the airwaves to mourn the loss of their favorite frozen treats.

Not everyone is aware that Blue Bell's Broken Arrow facility had "repeated listeria outbreaks" up to two years before the recalls were issued. An FDA investigation found that the company had failed to adequately safeguard against health hazards in a number of its factories. A production machine in the company's Brenham, TX location was so riddled with contaminants that the company had to decommission it. Multiple instances of condensation were also found in the Brenham factory, which is a serious health concern as it provides fertile breeding grounds for bacteria.

Over the summer of 2015, the company engaged in vigorous sanitization and training in its facilities to both address current problems and prevent future ones. By August, Blue Bell had staggered back to its feet and started tentatively re-opening facilities and restocking select shelves with its products. In a five-phase plan, it began resupplying small regions of its sales area (see map above), carefully testing its products and gauging public reception to the reintroduced products. On the whole, customers rejoiced to once again see the full half-gallons in stores, and by the beginning of 2016 distribution had almost entirely resumed. They have been chugging along admirably with few hiccups since then, apparently true to their goal of avoiding further contaminations.

Not all is wine and roses, however: The U.S. Department of Justice opened a criminal investigation of Blue Bell's executives in December of 2015 to determine exactly how much they had known about the transgressions of its facilities. This stems in part from extended investigation by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) which linked further cases of listeriosis all the way back to 2010 with possible Blue Bell contamination. The investigation will determine how much warning the company had of the cases reported in 2015, and whether they could have taken action to prevent them.

How Bad is Listeriosis?

Listeriosis is a potentially fatal infection caused by the germ listeria. Found in soil, water and the byproducts of some animals such as poultry and cattle (including raw milk), it's especially dangerous because unlike many other germs, it can grow and reproduce in cold temperatures.

In full-grown, healthy adults, listeriosis feels like a mild one- to two-week flu. It wouldn't be the end of the world, but it's pretty miserable to be under the weather with food poisoning. An afflicted adult can expect a full complement of symptoms, such as headaches, fever, nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

In children, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems, though, the stakes escalate. When not impeded by developed immunities, the bacteria can do more serious damage. The listed symptoms above can last longer and hit harder if the body is not able to rid itself of the infection. In fact, sustained listeria infections can develop into far worse cases of meningitis or septicemia, a blood infection. In pregnant women, infection also greatly increases the risk of stillbirth or miscarriage.

People across all demographics enjoy Blue Bell products, but the juvenile market is often among such products' most avid consumers. Their susceptibility to infection means that things could have ballooned out of control much worse than they thankfully did. Nonetheless, three casualties from an act as simple as enjoying ice cream can't be allowed to happen again, be it from Blue Bell or any other manufacturer.

September 2016: Two Steps Back

As of late last month, Blue Bell launched a voluntary recall of some of its products containing possibly-contaminated cookie dough supplied by Aspen Hills, Inc., a third-party partner.

Blue Bell recalled flavors
Not pictured but also recalled: three-gallon tubs of Blue Bell "Blue Monster," "Chocolate Chip Cookie," and "Krazy Kookie Dough."

The creamery is taking no chances this time; no injuries or illnesses were yet reported by the time the cookie-dough products were recalled. The decision to do so was made after Aspen Hills provided additional information about cookie dough lots that tested positive for listeria monocytogenes. In cooperation with the FDA, Blue Bell is "initiating this recall out of an abundance of caution." After they were nearly bankrupted by a prior lack of it, that makes a great deal of sense.

The recalled products were made from February to early September of this year, and were distributed to locations in 16 states.

While the recall is voluntary and proactive, it is strange to see a company with a spotless track record of 108 years so suddenly unsteady. If we look at that more closely, however, there might be some reasons for how they avoided a century of major scrutiny. We can assume that some of the phenomenon should truly be credited to their sanitation and training practices--nobody wants to imply they have skated by on luck alone. However, it's probably worth considering that the FDA's health audits have probably advanced in scale and thoroughness as technology has allowed. In the mid-20th century, certain testing devices and materials wouldn't have been available, and it's possible some bacterial strains made it into products without being recognized for what they were. There's also the possibility of antibiotic-resistant bacteria making it into current food batches, surviving sterilization processes that once wiped them out.

Blue Bell is hardly the only food service company to have been rocked by allegations of infectious bacteria these past few years. September 2015 saw the 28-year incarceration of Stewart Parnell, CEO of the now-gone Peanut Corporation of America, on charges of knowingly suppressing information about a 2008 salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that killed nine people and infected another 714. The restaurant chain Chipotle has also made a great deal of news lately for confirmed reports of salmonella, listeria, and norovirus outbreaks in its burrito ingredients.

Given this recent spate of headline-grabbing food contamination stories, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world. Of course, part of maintaining that distinction is to maintain vigilance when there is even the hint that something may be awry. If current reports are accurate, it appears that in this instance, Blue Bell did just that.