Companies that deliver unsafe products to consumers usually end up having to pay the piper in some form or another. Blue Bell Creameries, a manufacturer of ice cream products, is learning that the hard way this week.
On Thursday, a federal court in Texas ruled that the company will have to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties because of products that were linked to an outbreak of listeriosis back in 2015. The ruling follows a guilty plea that Blue Bell made in May 2020 and represents the largest criminal penalty a company has ever had to pay in a food safety case, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“American consumers must be able to trust that the foods they purchase are safe to eat. 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 Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.
Tainted products and improper sanitation
In allegations made against Blue Bell, federal officials said that the company violated the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by delivering ice cream products that had been contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes -- a bacteria that can cause serious illness or even death in vulnerable consumers.
After being told about two contaminated products, the DOJ said that Blue Bell instructed delivery drivers to pull contaminated products from stock. However, the company stopped short of issuing a full recall or notifying customers about the contaminated products. Two weeks later, officials told that company that a third product had also tested positive for listeria, but the company again decided not to issue any formal notifications to customers.
Further investigations showed that two Blue Bell facilities had an array of sanitation issues, which forced the company to shut down all of its manufacturing sites in April 2015. While the company was eventually able to reopen these locations and improve its sanitation processes, federal officials say the company needed to be held accountable.
“The health of American consumers and the safety of our food are too important to be thwarted by the criminal acts of any individual or company,” said U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official Judy McMeekin. “Americans expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity. We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who put the public health at risk by distributing contaminated foods in the U.S. marketplace.”