Listeria Outbreak in Blue Bell Ice Cream - The Deadly Ice Cream Cone

Three dead, dozens sickened in listeria outbreak, ice cream recalls follow.

Ice cream recently joined cheap hamburgers as a risky food choice, as each food may contain deadly bacteria. In ice cream, it’s listeria monocytogenes, which killed 3 people in Kansas in April. The outbreak was traced to Blue Bell Creameries’ Texas factory. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, listeria is the third-leading cause of death from food poisoning.

"This outbreak puts Blue Bell on notice, and I think it puts the entire ice cream industry on notice. They need to worry a good deal about Listeria," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, an expert on foodborne diseases at CDC.

Accordingly, consumers should be concerned about ice cream. You will want to act quickly if you or a loved on incurs the following symptoms of listeria poisoning:

  • Fever;
  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Diarrhea;
  • Abdominal pain and cramping; and
  • Back pain.

Listeria can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, in the elderly, and in others with weak immune systems. It can also cause a miscarriage so if you are pregnant, extra precaution is recommended.    

There are 3 reasons why listeria can be regarded as more dangerous than the better-known foodborne illnesses E. coli and salmonella.

1. Listeria is able to escape detection. 

To get some idea of this, note that the listeria source was found to be 5 years old in the recent Blue Bell listeria outbreak. For that long, the bacteria lurked undetected in a machine for making ice cream. But reports of listeria poisoning cases were few between 2010 and present in Texas. That meant the public-safety system, as it is set up in the United States, had too little to go on to discover Blue Bell as a continuing contamination source. Texas is part of a voluntary federal/state inspection program for ice cream factories, but in Texas the program failed to prevent deaths. This approach is voluntary and quite new, provided for under the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011.

Most states participate in the FSMA program. In April 2015, it worked in Nebraska as Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams recalled all products because one sample randomly tested by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture was contaminated with listeria. Nebraska tested under a federal Food and Drug Administration program that says states may charge ice cream producers $5,000 a year for random inspections.  

In Nebraska, where there are 5 ice cream factories, including Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, the FSMA system worked  to prevent sickness. In Texas, where there are 77 ice cream factories, the same system failed to prevent deaths. In Oregon, there are 6 ice cream factories.

In another voluntary move, Blue Bell said that under a brand-new company policy, it will test its own products itself before shipping them out.  

2. Listeria’s incubation period is highly variable, and most often lengthy.

It takes anywhere between 3 to 70 days for a person infected with listeria to show symptoms. A food poisoning victim may well have trouble listing all the places and times he/she consumed food possibly tainted with listeria (these can include packaged meats, soft cheeses, or raw sprouts). With ice cream, if a consumer is loyal to one brand that can lessen the difficulty for investigators. An experienced Oregon food poisoning attorney knows both how to gather outbreak data for safety officials and how to conduct an outbreak investigation himself.

Typically, it is around 30 days before listeria infection shows. In contrast, the infectious food-borne bacteria E. coli causes symptoms to appear within a maximum of 10 days.

3. Listeria survives sub-freezing conditions.

Listeria thrives in refrigerators and freezing doesn't kill it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Blue Bell is doing the right thing now by closing its factories, recalling all products, including ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sherbet, dating back to 2010, and doing a deep clean of all its manufacturing and storage machinery – every vat, mixing paddle, tube, pipe, bucket, and freezer compartment. Even though according to Tauxe, “Blue Bell is routinely a clean place,” its routine cleaning could not prevent the lurking of deadly bacteria for 5 years within the ice cream factory.


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