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OM in the News: The Deadly Ice Cream Recall

August 16, 2015

blue bellMy teenage son is a Blue Bell ice cream junkie. He polishes off about two 1/2 gallon containers of vanilla (why vanilla, of all flavors?!) a week–or at least he did until all Blue Bell was pulled off the shelves in April. Federal records, reports The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 5, 2015), show that Blue Bell failed to follow practices recommended that might have prevented listeria contamination of ice cream at its plants. The recall came after health officials tied its ice cream to 3 deaths in Kansas since the start of 2014, and additional illnesses elsewhere.

The Food and Drug Administration states that sanitation problems that created refuges for listeria have persisted at Blue Bell since at least 2009. Beginning in 2013, Blue Bell repeatedly found listeria in its Oklahoma facility—including on floors, a drain and at equipment that fills half-gallon containers—indicating the company didn’t do enough to identify the underlying cause or eliminate the source.

The FDA advises companies to regularly test for listeria on surfaces that touch food. It also recommends testing the food itself. But records show Blue Bell didn’t test its ice cream, or surfaces that touched it, despite finding listeria traces in the plant.

Until recently, listeria in ice cream was uncommon, though not unheard of. Neither of the two largest U.S. ice cream producers— Edy’s and Ben & Jerry’s—have had to recall their products due to contamination. However, three smaller ones recently have recalled products because of listeria contamination, including  Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, which had to shut production twice. So Blue Bell’s problems reflect broader complacency in the ice-cream industry about listeria. Many believe the frozen dessert is at lower risk of being associated with infections from listeria than some other packaged foods, in part because the bacteria doesn’t grow when food is frozen.

But as we discuss in Chapter 17, maintenance isn’t just about keeping facilities clean and machines working. It also involves management and employee awareness and involvement.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What did Blue Bell do wrong?
  2. What would quality expert Philip Crosby (see Chapter 6) say about the cause of the outbreak?
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