Ask Not For Whom The Blue Bell Tolls
May 16, 2015 10:01 AM   Subscribe

The Rocky Road Ahead
For the first time in its 108-year history, Blue Bell—and, in turn, Brenham—is in crisis. A super-nasty bacteria known as Listeria monocytogenes was found in a few Blue Bell products. Five hospital patients in Kansas had been infected with the listeria bacteria, three of whom died.

Blue Bell has laid off 1450 workers and furloughed 1400 more while they stop all operations.

There is no timeline to restart. Get yours on the black market.
posted by the man of twists and turns (50 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
i just have no words. we used to truck it in from texas when visiting family before we could get it in arkansas. so many of my best and worst memories involve a tub of blue bell. i will admit that i recently made some significant dietary changes which have been much easier to hold to without blue bell around every corner.

i wonder about the stores that rely on blue bell - lots of shake shacks and the like that proudly advertise blue bell only in their products 'round these parts.
posted by nadawi at 10:16 AM on May 16, 2015

I probably haven't had Blue Bell ice cream in almost 20 years, but I remember it fondly. My family used to always drive past the Blue Bell Creamery in Broken Arrow when I was a kid (and then continue on to get ice cream at the Braum's up the street because c'mon). Even if they close down temporarily, I predict someone will buy the name and manufacture it again.
posted by downtohisturtles at 10:18 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

When the full-line recall came down I threw out two unopened half gallons of cookies and cream. I felt like I should have held a funeral.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:19 AM on May 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

um blue bell is vastly superior to braums, sorry not sorry.
posted by nadawi at 10:21 AM on May 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

I grew up about 30 miles from Brenham and Blue Bell is a local treasure. They occupied a sweet, creamy spot between bad grocery store brand ice cream and expensive fancy Ben & Jerry's style ice cream. Good, but not overdone, and vanilla is just fine.

Let's hope they fix their shit. Listeria is very serious, it's not some mild problem like how you just ignore the cockroaches by the trashcan in your favorite greasy spoon diner because the burgers are so good.

I was surprised to see this story in the San Francisco paper today. Blue Bell is not available out here.
posted by Nelson at 10:22 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Blue Bell only got broad distribution in North Carolina a year or two ago. We still have some Blue Bell vanilla in the fridge that we got last summer (we don't eat a lot of ice cream) and I guess the last couple ice cream sodas here are going to have an oddly bittersweet taste.
posted by ardgedee at 10:26 AM on May 16, 2015

blue bell vanilla bean is maybe the most perfectly crafted mass produced vanilla ice cream.

i like their cookies and cream more than i like oreos.

banana pudding tastes more like home than any meal my parents could cook.

i could go on and on...
posted by nadawi at 10:32 AM on May 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm afraid this may do irreparable harm to the brand. They will be a long time, if ever, getting past this negative association with their entire product line. And that they still haven't got a handle on the problem or apparently a workable solution bodes very badly for them...
posted by jim in austin at 10:45 AM on May 16, 2015

I grew up on cheap non-name ice cream, but every once in a while my parents splurged for a half gallon of Blue Bell. A great treat in the Houston summer. We stayed in Brenham and went to the creamery just last year, and were planning on going again this summer. Oh well.

I'd be more sympathetic if they hadn't known about problems with listeria since 2013 and didn't immediately take care of it correctly.
posted by beowulf573 at 10:51 AM on May 16, 2015 [9 favorites]

I'd be more sympathetic if they hadn't known about problems with listeria since 2013 and didn't immediately take care of it correctly.

Yeah, exactly this. I grew up in Texas, Blue Bell is a piece of my heart, but it looks like they just kept doing the same "sanitizing" procedures after every presumptive positive even though they had no evidence that they were working. That's . . . troubling.
posted by KathrynT at 10:52 AM on May 16, 2015 [14 favorites]

That black market link is the best. "[seller] says it's listeria-free!"
posted by rhizome at 10:54 AM on May 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I grew up in Houston. That means that Blue Bell and my childhood are inseparable. It wasn't until I moved away that I learned that Blue Bell apparently wasn't the standard everywhere and that everyone else was eating frozen sewage that they called "ice cream" as if to prove the power of positive thinking.

This is a blow.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:01 AM on May 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

"[seller] says it's listeria free". A++++, would do business with them again!
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 11:05 AM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

And all this time I thought listeria was a flavor.
posted by metagnathous at 11:11 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm from Houston. We grew up on Blue Bell. When it became available in Kansas City we rejoiced and ate some Blue Bell. We don't really eat ice cream any longer but as soon as it's back on the shelves I'm getting some.
posted by damnitkage at 11:11 AM on May 16, 2015

i don't have high hopes of them returning, sadly. i think it's likely they'll sell the name, the quality of ingredients will drop, and the sizes will shrink. wells enterprises (makers of blue bunny) could make a killing if they scoop (sorry) it up.
posted by nadawi at 11:15 AM on May 16, 2015

It's possible to make a comeback from listeria contamination... at least that's what thousands of ice cream addicts here in Columbus, Ohio are praying for. Hometown favorite Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream is just now recovering from having listeria discovered in a pint that was sold in a Whole Foods in Nebraska. The company has reacted in stellar fashion, and the diary of their efforts to overcome the disaster makes for an inspiring read.
posted by memewit at 11:25 AM on May 16, 2015 [16 favorites]

Man, we used to go on day trips to the factory in Brenham, and then picnic at the historical sites at Washington on The Brazos. Plus, pretty much every other day I'd have a cup of the stuff at school lunch. Hope they bounce back, and maybe with some new direction.
posted by mitochondrial midichlorian at 11:27 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

What an amazing contrast between the ways Jeni and Blue Bell reacted to the problem.
posted by Shmuel510 at 11:33 AM on May 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

And, so as not to be focused on the wrong thing here:

. . .

I mean, people have died.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:34 AM on May 16, 2015 [26 favorites]

My favorite part "Voluntary Agreements with Texas and Oklahoma State Regulatory Agencies"

"Hey, if you agree with us, we won't pursue criminal charges AND you can say it's 'voluntary'".

And what would have happened without the state agencies? And if this WAS known about since 2013 and nothing was done, WHO THE FUCK IS GOING TO JAIL FOR NEGLIGENT HOMICIDE? Oh, that's right, certainly not any CEOs, are they? Maybe a little fine levied... (and of course, all the poor people working there are now fucked with layoffs and furloughs and pay cuts....) But I'm sure the CEOs are just crying over melted ice cream right now.
posted by symbioid at 12:14 PM on May 16, 2015 [26 favorites]

Yeah, seriously. A huge factory in the US's laxly-regulated food industry had recurring problems with food safety that they failed to address, and now people have died and are still suffering in hospital. But we should feel bad about the company because it has an old-timey name and makes tasty dessert.
posted by tigrrrlily at 12:18 PM on May 16, 2015 [27 favorites]

people can care about more than one thing at a time.
posted by nadawi at 12:21 PM on May 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

Blue Bell ice cream is a fine country thing, second only to the late lamented Yarnell's, a company so Southern that it put little transparent windows in the shape of Mississippi on the carton lids so you could see what flavor the ice cream was.

Still, if it's the fact that the company neglected contaminated factory equipment in order to keep pounding out the product, then that would also be distinctly Southern, distinctly Texan. Profit above all, neglect of regulations, lax oversight . . .
posted by Countess Elena at 12:34 PM on May 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

Honestly I think a big part of what's upsetting people is reconciling the beloved part of their childhood and down home local enterprise with the gross and deliberate corporate negligence that caused this disaster.
posted by KathrynT at 12:47 PM on May 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

CDC has the incident reports . And while the Kansas deaths were to people already hospitalized and so may have been secondary to other causes, I'm still thinking Bluebell should have taken better actions sooner.

The Ben and Jerry's shop in Houston was doing well last night so feel free to disregard how stories about Texans are now all in mourning and refusing all other brands.
posted by beaning at 12:56 PM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wow, that Jeni's link really is a master class in how to deal with a pretty significant disaster quickly, transparently, and effectively.

Good on them.
posted by Itaxpica at 12:59 PM on May 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'll buy Blue Bell again if, and only if, every single member of upper management is kicked out with no pension, no golden parachute, and ideally sued for criminal negligence by the shareholders. I'd rather they were arrested and tried for whatever the proper legal term is for causing people to die due to criminal negligence. But that'll never happen.

I doubt I'll be buying Blue Bell again, since the odds of upper management being punished for their evil behavior are about nil.
posted by sotonohito at 1:07 PM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Honestly I think a big part of what's upsetting people is reconciling the beloved part of their childhood and down home local enterprise with the gross and deliberate corporate negligence that caused this disaster.

Pretty much this. I was all ready to be sad until I found out that they'd been serving up listeria since 2013. Now I'm sad, but for different reasons. I've been on the tour in Brenham; I eat ice cream sandwiches of theirs every summer coming back from New Braunfels. I'm grateful that I'm not a statistic. The flavor of my summer may be ruined, but I'm not dead or in the hospital.
posted by immlass at 1:55 PM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

As for the future of Blue Bell, I'm sure it will be back, maybe as a slightly smaller brand in Texas and a few other surrounding states. I recently moved to Houston, and the unconditional love people have for Blue Bell here is a bit unsettling, especially after the revelations of them knowing about listeria in 2013. So many insensitive Facebook and newspaper comments about how it's only a few people that died. Screw that, no one should die from ice cream, especially for a known health issue.

Their institutional food service has to be done, right? What hospital is going to take a chance on them after 3 deaths in hospitals?

And, not to sound too hipster... but I never understood the love. Sure, the candy filed flavors were tasty yet very artifical. But the basic flavors were very underwhelming. I tried some "Homemade Vanilla", and I threw most of the pint out. I found later that the "Vanilla Bean" flavor is supposed to be superior, but why do they have two in the first place? Just mass market corn syrup filled dessert that just shouldn't compete when there's now so many better choices even at regular grocery stores.
posted by ALongDecember at 2:00 PM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

vanilla bean is more expensive than their other vanillas (and like quite a few of the blue bell ice creams, contains no hfcs).
posted by nadawi at 2:07 PM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wonder if Ben and Jerry have a hand in this. They're trying to make inroads down here, after all.
posted by Renoroc at 2:22 PM on May 16, 2015

  What hospital is going to take a chance on them after 3 deaths in hospitals?

Somewhere, there's a health insurance actuary working out whether externalizing liability for patient deaths is a good way of increasing shareholder value …

If Blue Bell's owners called Burson-Marsteller before announcing the product recall, a suitable punishment should be that they be forced to eat all the remaining 3-ounce single serving ice cream cups from the Broken Arrow, OK plant. Preferably on live TV.
posted by scruss at 2:28 PM on May 16, 2015

I wonder if Ben and Jerry have a hand in this

What exactly are you suggesting? That Ben himself squirted some listeria in the production line? Maybe Jerry called his friends at the FDA and said "hey, did you hear about the ice cream that killed three people in Kansas"? Perhaps it was Jostein acting on orders from Unilever, fabricating a deadly bacteria incident?
posted by Nelson at 2:47 PM on May 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's been a while since I took dairy foods (okay, a long time), but it's my recollection that not only is Listeria monocytogenes a very nasty organism, it's also difficult to detect and eliminate. It's not like E. coli or Salmonella.
posted by wintermind at 3:00 PM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

What an amazing contrast between the ways Jeni and Blue Bell reacted to the problem.

Yeah, I think Jeni's had the benefits of (1) being a smaller organization, and (2) happening right after the Blue Bell recall. So they had a lot more ability to maneuver and do things like pay a (much, much smaller) staff, and had a good idea of what *not* to do.

Also, their brand rests heavily on being perceived as a local, ethical business-- they had gotten some flack earlier this year when an employee in the warehouse resigned claiming a lack of opportunity for advancement/raises, and there have been rumors that Jeni's is slowly moving away from local ingredients/sources as they expand. And it worked-- some of my friends who had been getting a little snooty about Jeni's have been applauding them for the way they've handled all of this.

They're reopening this week (but I'm still sad that the roasted strawberry buttermilk ice cream is going to be delayed.)

(Incidentally, this all happened right around the same time as the botulism outbreak. So for a bit there, it just seemed like all of central Ohio was going to get food poisoning.)
posted by damayanti at 3:31 PM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is all part of Obama's invasion plan sheeple!
posted by srboisvert at 3:34 PM on May 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

One of the problems that has caused Blue Bell as much of a headache on this as they've had is that they use the same SKU number for all of their flavors. Why? would you ask? Well, competitively it masks what the popularity of a given flavor is and prevents industry analysts like Nielsen from properly segmenting their flavors by region while maintaining a slight internal advantage by them knowing what they produce and where they distribute it. Effectively every store is provided the proper assortment from them with reps working at an almost store by store basis, allowing them to combat competition with perfect record of how big a given brand and/or flavor is through Nielsen, but not showing their hand.

The downside of course is, that once a problem is found - you can't trace it back to just a single SKU... Going forward, expect Blue Bell to change the way that they label their product in order to regain the trust of the retailers.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:08 PM on May 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

I will inject my bit of non-listeria-related Blue Bell disappointment:
Until about 2 years ago, I was a happy, once-a-day, Blue Bell ice cream sandwich consumer.
They were inexpensive and superior.
Then, it all changed. The sandwiches were made much larger and more expensive.

I stopped eating them. I now (and much more rarely) eat Klondike bars cut in half (diagonally, if you must know). The quality seems about the same, the price somewhat more, the flavors more varied. But no soggy cracker--it's just not the same!
posted by hexatron at 6:04 PM on May 16, 2015

What was the CEO's name in 2013?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 6:37 PM on May 16, 2015

you can't trace it back to just a single SKU

The first part of what you said is interesting, but I can't imagine anyone tracing anything with SKUs. This is what lot numbers are for.
posted by sylvanshine at 7:24 PM on May 16, 2015

Comrades! Just as the earth, after a long drought, pants for rain, so the mouths of the world pant for the end of food poisoning, for reliable desserts.

This striving of the masses for rich, creamy, and above all, safe ice cream is the greatest factor in world history.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 8:24 PM on May 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

Can someone explain why it's so hard to get rid of Listeria? Are bleach and heat not powerful enough, or is there something special about ice cream machinery that makes them hard to sterilise?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:25 PM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I recently watched PBS's Frontline on The Trouble with Chicken, and some of the government oversight is very outdated, and recalls are voluntary. After seeing what they covered with salmonella, I'm not surprised to see this with listeria-a company that is "technically" compliant but morally questionable. No one wants to die from eating ice cream or chicken. I love ice cream, but the article was short on "this is how we, and others, have resolved the listeria question."
posted by childofTethys at 3:29 AM on May 17, 2015

Lot numbers are production identifications of a single plant and production cycle. SKU helps identify flavor. If every SKU is the same, I can't tell if the food borne problem is from a pecan and only affects the butter pecan, or if it is from the eggs or cream. As a result of their SKU manipulation strategy, they can't minimize their recall and every flavor becomes suspect.

Part of my work is in this industry, this is big concern for my clients as blue bell is a huge regional player with huge loyalty - hence the scramble of every other ice cream manufacturer to increase their production to help meet the gaping hole this opens up in the south, central and Midwest. This is huge.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:01 AM on May 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is huge.

So in other words it really all is a vast Ben and Jerry conspiracy?
posted by Nelson at 6:15 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, there are a lot of pressures on the ice cream market already with the price of commodities like cocoa and chocolate being up. Add into that the fact that demand for summer months can never be met, and now a major regional player (in some places 2/3 of the market) will start the summer with 0 inventory and 0 distribution, all other manufacturers will struggle to keep ice cream on the shelf. Expect prices to increase - not to take advantage, but because now the resources and distribution for all channels will be challenged to the extreme. It really is a mess.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:00 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

People could also just make their own.
posted by mitochondrial midichlorian at 7:47 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Joe in Australia: "Can someone explain why it's so hard to get rid of Listeria? Are bleach and heat not powerful enough, or is there something special about ice cream machinery that makes them hard to sterilise?"
Listeria monocytogenes is a problem for which there really are no great solutions, even in industrial settings where an obsessive cleaning of surfaces unlike anything remotely familiar to laymen becomes possible, it is in so many ways to perfect bug to fuck up and spread terror through our food system.

The reason why it is such a problem in fancy ice cream is the same reason why it is a problem in fancy cheeses (previously) and fancy sausages (previously), where there is nothing you can apply to food to kill it other than heat or chemicals that make food taste spoiled. It is facultatively anaerobic so neither starving it of oxygen or exposing it to oxygen does anything and it grows just fine in a refrigerator so keeping food cold doesn't do a damn thing to prevent its growth. It also uses a quorum sensing mechanism in its hosts to prevent virulence until it grows to a point where it can just overwhelm the immune system - not that the immune system could do so much anyway with it being intracellular - allowing it to be infectious in absurdly low doses. While at the same time, it causes a whole plethora of truly horrific diseases that have no effective treatments, its near impossible to detect at the lower levels that can still easily infect people, and the tests that we do have each take at least 72 hours.

In the absence of great solutions, what we have are good solutions, the obsessive adherence to cGMP and its philosophy that Blue Bell has fucked up. With the huge 3+ day gap between what is happening and what you can see happening, how little you can see anyway, and just how much harm what you can't see can cause - Listeria will always run circles around any processor who is cutting any sort of corners.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:52 AM on May 18, 2015 [15 favorites]

Flagged as fantastic because there isn't a flag for "informative but horrifying".
posted by Monochrome at 9:06 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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