Blue Bell Creameries was ordered by a federal Texas judge to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties over charges that it shipped listeria-contaminated ice cream in 2015.
The company pleaded guilty in May to two misdemeanor counts of distributing the contaminated products, which prosecutors said were linked to a 2015 listeriosis outbreak.
The $17.25 million is the largest-ever criminal penalty following a conviction in a food safety case, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“American consumers must be able to trust that the foods they purchase are safe to eat,” read a statement from acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the DOJ’s civil division. “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.”
Blue Bell pleaded guilty in May to allegedly distributing products made in unsanitary conditions, and that were later revealed to be contaminated with listeria.The company told its drivers to remove the contaminated ice cream from store shelves but never formally recalled the products or communicated to the public, the Justice Department said.
Two weeks after Texas officials informed the company that samples of two products from its Brenham facility had been contaminated, a third product tested positive — but the company again failed to issue a formal notification, prosecutors said.
Then in March of 2015, five hospital patients in Kansas were linked to the contaminated ice cream, leading the the FDA, CDC and Blue Bell to publicly recall the products.
Later FDA inspections in March and April of that year found sanitation problems at Blue Bell facilities in both Texas and Oklahoma, according to the DOJ.
Prosecutors had previouslty charged the company’s former president and CEO, Paul Kruse, with seven felony charges for allegedly trying to cover up Blue Bell’s role in the outbreak. Those charges were dismissed in July for lack of jurisdiction.
Since reopening its facilities in late 2015, the DOJ said the ice cream manufacturer had improved its sanitation processes and implemented a test for listeria prior to shipment.
“Today's court action closes a difficult chapter in Blue Bell's history,” read a statement from the company. “We are a new, different and better Blue Bell. We learned hard lessons and turned them into determination to make the safest, most delicious ice cream available, with upgraded production facilities, training, safety procedures, and environmental and product testing programs. Food safety is our highest priority, and we know we must continue to be vigilant every day.”