In late June, a video clip surfaced of a young woman in the freezer aisle of a Lufkin, Texas, Walmart performing a universally frowned upon act: licking the surface of ice cream on a half gallon of Blue Bell, replacing the lid, and returning the tub to the freezer for some unsuspecting customer to pick up.
What kinda psychopathic behavior is this?! pic.twitter.com/T8AIdGpmuS— Optimus Primal (@BlindDensetsu) June 29, 2019
Responses to the now viral clip were swift and damning. Texas governor Greg Abbott called the licker a “despicable criminal,” demanding such behavior to be “rightfully punished.” Lufkin’s director of public safety called it a “major crime.” Police officers photographed themselves in store freezer aisles guarding Blue Bell ice cream. Many called for the ice cream licker be arrested and jailed, enraged by both the act and the fear that it was meant to deliberately infect others with the flu, as an Instagram user claiming to be the culprit (later revealed to be a fake “catfish” account) suggested. After she was apprehended, police revealed that the woman in the video is a juvenile; as such, she will be charged within the juvenile justice system, instead of facing a second-degree felony charge of tampering with a consumer product.
What the teenager did — not to mention the clout-chasing copycats she inspired — is irresponsible, especially taking into account the possibility of spreading germs to members of the population with compromised immune systems. But, as journalist Dan Solomon pointed out for Texas Monthly, the reaction felt both outsized and oddly protective of the Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell, particularly when considering that “the first person to face criminal charges related to contaminated Blue Bell ice cream would be a kid who posted a video of herself pulling a dumb prank, and not any of the people who were at the company when their product literally killed people.”
It was only four years ago that Blue Bell, one of the largest ice cream makers in the U.S., was forced to shut down production and recall all its products after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked its frozen treats to 10 infections of listeria. Three people died. The CDC found that what initially appeared to be an outbreak in 2015 had actually been making people sick as early as 2010, and an FDA investigation revealed that Blue Bell had discovered listeria bacteria in a plant — which was likely caused by inadequate sanitation practices — two years prior, but had failed to address or publicize the problem.
Despite this outright negligence, as journalist Peter Elkind wrote for Fortune at the time, fans of Blue Bell seemed to mourn the temporary loss of Blue Bell more than the loss of three lives: Residents of Brenham, the site of Blue Bell’s headquarters, held a prayer vigil. Texas senator Ted Cruz posed for a photo with a sign that read: “God bless Blue Bell.” Governor Abbott celebrated Blue Bell’s return to grocery stores with the message: “Texans can rejoice today as Blue Bell ice cream makes its long-awaited comeback in freezer aisles across the state.”
No one from Blue Bell faced criminal charges, despite the 10 hospitalizations and three deaths. The company was fined $850,000, only $175,000 of which it ultimately ended up paying (the rest was forgiven). The teenage ice cream licker, had she been older, would have faced up to 20 years of jail time.
It’s a strange quirk of the human psyche that we are so often more preoccupied with the actions of individuals, rather than the actions of the larger corporations, institutions, and systems that have a lot more say in how the world works. As philosopher and theorist Iris Marion Young said in a 2003 lecture on political responsibility and structural injustice:
Many of the problems we collectively face are large scale structural problems, some of which cross national boundaries – global warming, volatility of financial systems, unemployment, and countless other issues. Yet the concepts of responsibility we operate with derive from and are most suited to issues of smaller scale interaction. We continue to rely on a phenomenology of agency that gives primacy to near effects over remote effects, to individual effects over group effects, and to people’s positive actions more than what they have failed to do.
In other words, in the face of vast, daunting problems that feel beyond our reach, we have a tendency to latch onto what feels concrete and closer within reach: the supposition that all we need to do to prevent ourselves getting sick from our favorite dessert is to catch one or two bad guys in the stores we frequent every day. It’s easier than dwelling on the distant patchwork of regulators and quality-assurance managers and executives skirting corners at the expense of safety. It’s less soul crushing to implore individual actors to keep their tongues away from our ice cream cartons than to confront the knowledge that even our most cherished family-owned ice cream companies create systemic conditions in which people’s health and lives are worth less than scale and profit.
It’s the same impulse that has driven much of the discourse surrounding our current climate crisis: In a world in which corporations and governing bodies fail to act with an urgency that the planet requires to stave off all-but-assured disaster, here’s another suggestion to fight climate change by installing a smart thermostat, line drying your clothes, or not having children.
To be fair, individual actions do matter — please, for the love of god, do not become the next copycat ice cream licker — but it’s a problem when a focus on individual behavior becomes a form of tunnel vision that prevents us from remembering the larger forces that have a bigger impact on how we live. When a teenage girl faces more hostility and calls for jail time for a prank than a multi-million-dollar company that failed to protect its consumers, that’s when you really have to stop and consider who gets assigned blame, and who gets exoneration, in the eyes of the public.