SocraticGadfly: FDA, CDC say #BlueBell, other ice cream is safe — is it?

June 05, 2015

FDA, CDC say #BlueBell, other ice cream is safe — is it?

UPDATE, June 5: Listeria's now been traced back to Blue Bell's Alabama plant. That means that all three of its ice-cream making plants — the original in Brenham, Texas, its next in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and now this one in Sylacauga, Alabama, it's newest plant have had proven listeria problems. (The Alabama plant is less than 20 years old.)

The FDA now says that the Alabama plant, like the others, was not built in a way to prevent condensate from dripping in such a way as to contaminate food-contact surfaces.

In other words, if the FDA and its state inspection agent lackeys actually do their jobs now, Blue Bell shouldn't be allowed to reopen until it does extensive overhauls at its plants.

I think that, having laid off so many other people, the company needs to fire its CEO, Paul W. Kruse. It seems that Blue Bell, family-operated by the Kruses for generations, expanded too quickly and/or carelessly and coasted on family and reputational laurels. Send the company a Tweet at @ILoveBlueBell.

UPDATE, May 21: The implosion should continue to worsen. We now know that Blue Bell's listeria problems date back further, to 2009, and the problem, and its causes, weren't just at its other plants but at the Brenham home place.
About one drop of condensate per minute was observed falling into three-gallon ice cream buckets on a production line in 2009. An inspector also saw water dripping onto ice cream sandwiches. The release of the inspection documents, in response to a Houston Chronicle request under the Freedom of Information Act, follows findings by the FDA that Blue Bell knew about listeria on floors and pallets in its Oklahoma plant as early as 2013, but did not follow up with tests of food contact surfaces.
Blue Bell, meanwhile, apparently hasn’t furloughed its PR spinmeisters:
"Blue Bell has a long history of working cooperatively with regulatory agencies; we take inspections seriously and make corrections to improve our operations based on findings in those inspections," spokesman Joe Robertson said in an email Thursday. "Blue Bell is currently in the midst of a comprehensive review of all our operations, policies, employee training and cleaning procedures to help give regulatory agencies and the public confidence that when our products return to market, they will be safe."

Hey, Joe, why didn’t your “comprehensive review” happen six years ago?


The Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control, say that food shoppers shouldn't worry about listeria in ice cream despite Blue Bell's total recall of all product, followed this week by discovery of listeria in a sample of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, in Ohio.

Bad timing, feds.

Update, May 7: Real bad timing. Blue Bell knew about listeria at the Oklahoma plant that's the root of the current problems back in 2013. That's in addition to the already-reported news that the CDC knew about other Blue Bell listeria problems back in 2010.

Per the 2013 issues, Blue Bell also didn't do enough to fix the problems that it knew about. That's why, per the link about its 2010 knowledge, Blue Bell's claim that "they're determined to find the source of the deadly strain of listeria" sounds pretty laughable. (Listeria is not a coliform bacterium, but if you weren't trying to clean that up, why should we believe you're worried about listeria?)

Per this story, it appears the listeria was pretty widespread: Freezer floor, catwalk, filling devices for half-gallon tubs, a drain, a water hose and more.

Meanwhile, per the header of this post and the 2013 link, it seems the FDA didn't do enough follow-up work. These updates are an indictment of its lax inspection process, too. 

Jamba, the juice and smoothie king, is recalling store-sold bags of "make-at-home" smoothies. For listeria contamination.

First, we need more testing:
Sandra Eskin, director of food safety for the Pew Charitable Trusts, says she believes the U.S. ice cream supply is safe but says the outbreak linked to Blue Bell shows the need for more testing for foodborne bacteria in manufacturing facilities.President Barack Obama signed a sweeping new food safety law in 2011 that would boost some of that testing, but the FDA hasn't yet put all of the rules in place.
And, the wingnuts in Congress, surprisingly, haven’t further gutted federal regulations for stuff like this yet.

Because, if we had more testing, we wouldn’t have statements like this:
"Based upon what we know now, there is no connection between these two ice cream companies nor any reason to suspect that ice cream as a whole poses any special foodborne disease risk," said CDC's Dr. Robert Tauxe. 
Still, Tauxe said the discovery of listeria is a "wake-up call" for the industry, since the bacteria isn't very common in ice cream. While the hardy bacteria thrive in cooler environments, they can't grow at freezing temperatures.
“Wake-up call” puts it mildly. I don’t know much about Jeni’s, but I’m pretty sure Blue Bell tried to expand too quickly; that's probably part of what was behind it having listeria problems back in 2010. Given that Jamba is making these at-home products for grocery store sale, I suspect similar is true there.

Beyond that, Dr. Tauxe, can you assure us that giving dairy cows, like beef cows, antibiotics, hasn't made listeria, a bacterium, more disease-resistant?

No, you can't.

Taking this to an even more serious level, why should I trust the FDA and CDC if we've just recently heard about Blue Bell's 2010 listeria problems? And, as an FDA whistleblower like Ken Kendrick knows, we're thin on inspectors and the FDA, like USDA, outsources a lot of its inspections. So, not only do I not trust the FDA a lot, but, given Kendrick's experience with salmonella and peanuts, I don't even know what the hell the FDA actually knows. (Given that one FDA inspector reportedly asked Kendrick "What is salmonella?" whether that was a contracted or an in-house inspector, it really doesn't make one feel confident, does it?

Given that Blue Bell is America's second most popular ice cream, after store brands, it's got a long "chain of custody" to check on both milk and eggs. This could take a while. Blue Bell is to be commended for doing a total recall; they're to be dinged for them, as well as the gummint, not doing more back in 2010.

Fortunately, nobody has outsourced stuff like at-home smoothie kits to be made out of powders in China.


That Trans-Pacific Partnership will surely bless us with that, if passed. And, the FDA or USDA has already outsourced just about all of its inspection of imported food products.


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