AUSTIN — A Texas ice cream company has pleaded guilty to distributing contaminated goods and its former CEO has been charged with conspiracy and attempted wire fraud in connection to a 2015 listeria outbreak that left three people dead, federal prosecutors announced Friday.
Blue Bell Creameries agreed to pay more than $19 million in fines and forfeiture as part of a plea agreement on two misdemeanor counts for shipping contaminated ice cream, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Former CEO Paul Kruse was charged with seven felonies for allegedly concealing what the company knew about the listeria contamination. The case was filed in a federal court in Austin.
Kruse’s lawyer, Chris Flood, said his client is innocent and that he and other Blue Bell employees “did the best they could with the information they had at the time.”
The company said in a statement Friday that it “learned hard lessons” from the outbreak and that food safety is its “highest priority.”
The charges stem from a listeria contamination that Blue Bell Creameries told federal inspectors it believed spread through a drainage system at an Oklahoma plant.
The company, which is based in the central Texas town of Brenham, recalled products after its ice cream was linked to 10 listeria cases in four states, including three deaths in Kansas.
According to the plea agreement, Texas state officials notified Blue Bell in February 2015 that two ice cream products from the company’s Brenham, Texas factory tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous pathogen that can lead to serious illness or death in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, newborns, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, according to a news release issued Friday by the U.S. Justice Department. Blue Bell directed its delivery route drivers to remove remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, but the company did not recall the products or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential listeria contamination. Two weeks after receiving notification of the first positive listeria tests, Texas state officials informed Blue Bell that additional testing confirmed listeria in a third product. Blue Bell again chose not to issue any formal notification to customers regarding the positive tests.
In March 2015, tests conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the strain of listeria in one of the Blue Bell ice cream products to a strain that sickened five patients at a Kansas hospital with listeriosis, the severe illness caused by ingestion of listeria-contaminated food, the Justice Department said. The FDA, CDC, and Blue Bell all issued public recall notifications on March 13, 2015. Subsequent tests confirmed listeria contamination in a product made at another Blue Bell facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, which led to a second recall announcement on March 23, 2015.
Prosecutors said the total sum to be paid by Blue Bell is second largest ever paid in a food-safety case.
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