Texas-based ice cream company Blue Bell Creameries has reopened its factories and put its ice cream back in stores after a costly Listeria outbreak, but its troubles are not over. According to the Houston Chronicle, there are number of sanitary and safety issues at Blue Bell's Brenham, Texas ice cream plant. 14 ex-employees, who have a combined 213 years of experience between them, have come forward with problems at the plant. The employees say that they complained to supervisors about the issues, but nothing was ever done.
Many of the problems arose because Blue Bell was quickly expanding its sales, but it wasn't able to increase its production fast enough to keep up with demand. So, the company's plants were being worked overtime. A employee says that a machine at the Brenham factory, nicknamed "Gram," was "running virtually 24-7," which meant that no one could clean it. The machine produced a batch of Listeria-tainted ice cream bars in January, and just a few weeks later, it made a batch of ice cream cookie sandwiches that also tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
The Listeria outbreak was preventable
In February, health officials found Listeria in random samples of ice cream and when Blue Bell did its own tests, it found more of the pathogen in the drains connected to Gram. Still, according to FDA records, Blue Bell failed to "change its practices" and eliminate the bacteria. Only when Blue Bell learned that its ice cream was linked to illnesses at a hospital in Kansas, did it stop using the machine. In May, Blue Bell quit using Gram permanently because it was "so contaminated."
Not only was the Listeria outbreak — and the deaths of three people — likely preventable, there are plenty of other safety issues that employees say took place at the Brenham plant. A cleaner says that they would often run out of hot water to properly wash the 200-gallon liquid ice cream mixing tanks: "If it ran out, it ran out... It became a race for time." Allegedly 12 other employees have complained about water temperature "repeatedly" over the past 10 to 15 years.
Another employee tells the paper that everyday, they saw a "steady drip" from a dirty air vent onto Blue Bell's Fudge Bombstiks. The problems didn't stop there: Blue Bell apparently bypassed a safety feature on a production machine which resulted in one employee losing the top part of three of his fingers. A spokesperson for Blue Bell would not comment on the employees' accounts instead telling the Houston Chronicle that "we have always valued all of our employees and want them to feel safe and enjoy working here." Eater has reached out for comment.