The United States Justice Department is investigating Blue Bell Creameries, reports CBS News, following the ice cream company's connection to a deadly Listeria outbreak. Listeria led to the first recall in Blue Bell's 108-year history last spring. The Justice department reportedly is trying to determine what Blue Bell officials knew about potentially deadly hazards in the company's plants, and when they knew it.
At the time of the recall, Blue Bell CEO and president Paul Kruse said the company was "committed to doing the 100 percent right thing." But, that might not be the case. Former employees claim an ice cream factory in Brenham, Texas, was unsanitary and unsafe. They alleged one machine was "running virtually 24/7," leaving workers with no time to clean it. The machine produced a batch of Listeria-tainted ice cream bars in January, and a few weeks later, it made a batch of ice cream cookie sandwiches that also tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
In May, Houston resident David Philip Shockley sued Blue Bell, claiming he "damn near died" after eating Listeria-tainted ice cream in 2013. Shockley said he "consumed a variety of Blue Bell ice cream products contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes," two years before the company issued its voluntary total recall. The recall came after three deaths were connected to tainted ice cream from Blue Bell, which was forced to lay off 1,450 employees.
In July, the Justice Department announced it would consider legal action against companies deemed to be responsible for foodborne illness outbreaks. Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery said civil and criminal penalties are possible: "We have made a priority holding individuals and companies responsible when they fail to live up to their obligations that they have to protect the safety of the food that all of us eat."
In September, a former peanut executive was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his company's role in a massive salmonella outbreak that killed nine people. Stewart Parnell was convicted of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted products, and he received what is believed to be the stiffest penalty ever related to foodborne illness.
Blue Bell resumed ice cream production in July, and its products first returned to stores in August.