Blue Bell: Test­ing helps cre­ate safe treats post-2015 re­call

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

In the wake of an­other re­call of its ice cream prod­ucts, Blue Bell has stood firm in its be­lief that a “ro­bust” test­ing pro­gram it im­ple­mented fol­low­ing last year’s lis­te­ria con­tam­i­na­tion is help­ing the com­pany cre­ate safe treats.

But while the new re­call - again linked to lis­te­ria and in­volv­ing a third-party sup­plier - is likely to result in more reg­u­la­tory and pub­lic scru­tiny for Blue Bell, ex­perts say it prob­a­bly won’t mean a sub­stan­tial loss of cus­tomers.

Blue Bell had to shut down its flag­ship cream­ery in Bren­ham, Texas, about 70 miles from Hous­ton, for a few months to fully clean after last year’s re­call, which was linked to 10 lis­te­ria cases in four states, in­clud­ing three deaths in Kansas. After it restarted production, state in­spec­tion records show in­creased pre­lim­i­nary tests from De­cem­ber 2015 through July in­di­cated the pres­ence of lis­te­ria on some non-food con­tact ar­eas. This led Blue Bell to do ad­di­tional clean­ing and re­pairs to things like a break room and a floor drain.

The com­pany has re­gained some of its mar­ket share, but the ef­forts took a hit last month after it an­nounced it was re­call­ing some ice cream prod­ucts after find­ing cho­co­late chip cookie dough from a third-party sup­plier - Iowa-based Aspen Hills Inc. - that was po­ten­tially con­tam­i­nated with lis­te­ria.

Tests by Blue Bell and the Texas De­part­ment of State Health Ser­vices found the pres­ence of lis­te­ria in un­opened boxes of the dough. It was first dis­cov­ered Sept. 9; Blue Bell be­gan buy­ing the cookie dough in Jan­uary.

Blue Bell cred­ited its test­ing pro­gram with dis­cov­er­ing the prob­lem. “Be­cause lis­te­ria is com­mon in the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, our ro­bust en­vi­ron­men­tal test­ing pro­gram ac­tively searches for and san­i­tizes ar­eas where lis­te­ria may be present,” it said in an email. Aspen Hills has said its lab re­sults have been neg­a­tive for lis­te­ria but it re­called its prod­uct be­cause it found lapses in its food safety sys­tem. Blue Bell ex­panded its re­call this week after Aspen Hills re­called ad­di­tional sup­plies of its prod­uct.

Lis­te­ria can cause se­ri­ous ill­ness, es­pe­cially in older adults, preg­nant women and peo­ple with weak­ened im­mune sys­tems. Blue Bell said that if test­ing shows the pres­ence of lis­te­ria, it shuts down production lines and steamtreats equip­ment.

The state’s in­spec­tion records show that sus­pected sources of lis­te­ria from Novem­ber through July in the Bren­ham plant in­cluded a room where em­ploy­ees leave or cover their shoes be­fore en­ter­ing production ar­eas, a break room, a floor drain near an ice cream fill­ing ma­chine and a door­way near a ware­house/dis­tri­bu­tion area. The pre­lim­i­nary find­ings of lis­te­ria prompted Blue Bell to take var­i­ous ac­tions, such as re­pairs, tak­ing apart equip­ment for ad­di­tional clean­ing and adding san­i­tiz­ing crys­tals in affected ar­eas. None of th­ese in­ci­dents re­sulted in a shut­down of the plant.

Bran­don Henning, who works for a New Jersey-based com­pany that cre­ates qual­ity con­trol soft­ware, said he is en­cour­aged by the var­i­ous ac­tions Blue Bell says it’s taken.

“The re­al­ity for Blue Bell is they are go­ing to have to per­form above and be­yond at least for the next sev­eral years where they don’t have in­ci­dents or re­calls and are trusted again by con­sumers and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment,” Henning said, adding that ul­ti­mately it is Blue Bell’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure that its sup­pli­ers pro­vide it with safe prod­ucts. In 2014, be­fore the lis­te­ria out­break, Blue Bell had about $680 mil­lion in rev­enues, said Evan Danck­w­erth, an an­a­lyst with re­search firm PrivCo. That fell to about $288 mil­lion last year, and is pro­jected to be around $340 mil­lion this year. He noted that sales fig­ures seem to in­di­cate Blue Bell has re­tained cus­tomer loy­alty.

Texas De­part­ment of State Health Ser­vices spokes­woman Chris­tine Mann said Blue Bell has worked with its in­spec­tors “to cor­rect any de­fi­cien­cies.”

US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion spokesman Lau­ren Kotwicki de­clined to com­ment on Blue Bell or its lat­est re­call. In the wake of the cur­rent re­call, Blue Bell said it con­tin­ues to “re­fine our pro­ce­dures, make ad­di­tional phys­i­cal en­hance­ments in our fa­cil­i­ties, and re­in­force our em­ployee train­ing.”

Logo of the Blue Bell Cream­eries an Amer­i­can food com­pany. —AFP Test­ing pro­gram gets credit

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