Last week, Blue Bell Creameries announced a recall of select flavors of ice cream made at the company’s Sylacauga, Alabama plant due to potential listeria contamination. The chocolate chip cookie dough used in the ice cream came from a third-party supplier, Aspen Hills, Inc. The Brenham-based ice cream company “blamed the listeria on . . . an Iowa supplier” which said that “no other customer has complained about listeria and said its tests found the product listeria free when it shipped out.”

Blue Bell Blames Cookie Dough Supplier for Listeria-Related Ice Cream Recall

Blue Bell identified a potential problem through intensified internal testing and notified Aspen Hills,” Blue Bell said in its statement. “Aspen Hills then issued a voluntary recall of the products supplied to Blue Bell. Although our products in the marketplace have passed our test and hold program, which requires that finished product samples test negative for Listeria monocytogenes, Blue Bell is initiating this recall out of an abundance of caution.”

The recall was confined to two flavors – “Cookie Two Step” and “Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough” – and distributed in the following ten states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Counterintuitively, the potential problem was not identified in the ice cream that was actually recalled. Rather, the “potential problem” was identified in ice cream produced at Blue Bell’s Brenham facility before that ice cream ever made it into the stream of commerce. The recalled ice cream had already passed the company’s test-and-hold program, which requires that finished product samples test negative for listeria before the product is distributed.

The ice cream manufacturer actually admitted that it had “earlier tested ice cream made with the same ingredient in its plant in Sylacauga, Alabama, and found no evidence of the bacteria.” As one prominent Texas newspaper stated,

“Blue Bell ice cream that’s now the focus of a 10-state recall actually passed a test for the presence of listeria but was recalled because of problems that surfaced at the company’s Texas plant . . . Blue Bell said Thursday that the product made in Alabama had been cleared for sale. It was pulled back because ice cream made in Brenham – which was not sold – showed signs of potential listeria contamination.”

According to the company, it tested unopened boxes of chocolate chip cookie dough ingredient and confirmed the presence of listeria in the ingredient. Blue Bell went on to defend its testing program generally, as well as its implementation in this case. The manufacturer stated that all suppliers must meet requirements to test ingredients for various bacteria including listeria, and that the company has an “internal ingredient testing program” as well. Regarding the current recall, the company released the following statement:

“We think it is important that you know that the boxes of cookie dough ingredient we tested from the supplier were unopened, and we confirmed listeria monocytogenes in the chocolate chip ingredient, as did our regulators . . .  After our internal sampling raised concerns, our outside lab confirmed the presence of listeria monocytogenes in the cookie dough sample. We stand behind our testing results.

Aspen Hills Fires Back: Product Negative for Listeria at Alabama Plant, Remained Untested at Brenham Facility for Two Months

Blue Bell’s statement to the Associated Press that it found listeria contamination in packages of cookie dough received from Aspen Hills did not go unanswered. In response, Aspen Hills released a statement that said its cookie dough product “tested negative for listeria before it was shipped to Blue Bell and that ‘positive listeria results were obtained by Blue Bell only after our product had been in their control for almost two months.'”

Although Iowa-based cookie dough supplier Aspen Hills voluntarily recalled the product – the first recall in company history – the company stated that the cookie dough had tested negative for listeria when shipped to Blue Bell.

“Even though our own product testing, conducted and certified by an independent lab, showed negative results for listeria and verified that the product was unadulterated when it left our production facility, we took this step – as well as the recall of an additional batch of product – out of an abundance of caution,”

Aspen Hills said in a statement, adding that the shipment of cookie dough to Blue Bell’s Brenham plant occurred two months before the ice cream manufacturer conducted tests on the product. The supplier reiterated its confidence that all of its product tested clean before leaving the Aspen Hills plant:

“We’re confident in our testing procedures – which were specified by Blue Bell for the product sold to it – were done correctly and that the product we provided to Blue Bell was negative for listeria when it left our control . . . We can’t speculate on what happened subsequent to that point or what testing procedures Blue Bell performed, but we’re confident those questions are among the topics of interest to the FDA.”

Fallout From the 2016 Blue Bell Ice Cream Recall

Aspen Hill’s statements regarding tests conducted on the product prior to shipment and Blue Bell’s potential responsibility “sets up a conflict with Blue Bell over who is responsible for recall, which will cost Blue Bell not only financially but also is the first big blow to its image redemption efforts.”

While Blue Bell continues to engage in a campaign to rebuild consumer confidence in its products, how the latest outbreak will affect the company remains unclear. Crisis communications expert at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Robert Ulmer said that the effect depends on what ultimately is determined to be the source of the problem: “If it’s a lack of learning from Blue Bell, that’s one thing . . . If it really is the distributor, then we have a different story.” Finding an answer as to who is at fault will undoubtedly be complicated and may never be resolved.

As for the relationship between Aspen Hills and Blue Bell, which began in January, Blue Bell states that it has suspended purchases from Aspen Hills indefinitely.

A Look Back at the 2015 Blue Bell Total Recall and Listeria Outbreak

March 2015 marked the first positive listeria test in Blue Bell’s 108-year history. Blue Bell subsequently announced a recall of ten frozen snack items due to potential listeria contamination; by April 20th, the recall encompassed “all of [Blue Bell’s] products currently on the market made at all of its facilities including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks because they [had] the potential to be contaminated” with listeria.

In the wake of the massive recalls, Blue Bell signed agreements with public health officials in Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama – the three states in which the company has production facilities – requiring Blue Bell to inform the states at any time a product or ingredient tests positive for listeria. In addition, state officials have authority to, and have, conducted additional visits to Blue Bell plants and conducted their own tests of product samples.

While all three states have conducted additional inspections, such inspections have been less frequent in Alabama – the location that produced the Cookie Two-Step and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream recalled this month – than in the Oklahoma and Texas locations.

Alabama tests ice cream products from Blue Bell’s Sylacauga plant on a quarterly basis, while an inspector visits the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma plant on a monthly basis. In Texas, inspectors with the Texas Department of State Health Services have visited the plant more than 50 times, conducted 22 routine inspections, 22 equipment tests and made on-site visits 17 additional times for other reasons including records review, training evaluations and sample collections.

If you or a family member became ill have been diagnosed with Listeria and you would like to explore pursuing a legal claim, contact a listeria lawyer at Ron Simon & Associates for a free case evaluation by calling 1-888-335-4901 or filling out our free case evaluation form. Attorneys at Ron Simon & Associates have represented victims in past Listeria outbreaks, including the Blue Bell outbreak in 2015.