WASHINGTON -- Blue Bell had evidence of listeria bacteria in its Oklahoma plant as far back as March 2013, a government investigation released Thursday says. The company then continued to ship ice cream produced in that plant after what the Food and Drug Administration says was inadequate cleaning.
Three listeria deaths in Kansas are now linked to the ice cream. The company recalled all of its products last month, following several smaller recalls.
The FDA released its investigations into Blue Bell's plants in Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama after a Freedom of Information request by The Associated Press. The most extensive violations were found in Oklahoma, where the FDA released 16 separate positive tests for listeria on equipment and in ice cream from March 2013 through January 2015.
"That's too bad it's been that long," said Don Sprague, a Blue Bell fan.
Violations in the Oklahoma plant include dirty equipment, inadequate food storage, food being held at improper temperatures and employees not washing hands adequately.
There were also violations at the Texas and Alabama plants. In Alabama, FDA investigators observed at least two employees working with the food wearing soiled clothing. In Texas, investigators saw condensation dripping directly into food and onto surfaces that came directly in contact with food. In all of the plants, the FDA found dirty equipment and infrastructure that made cleaning difficult.
Blue Bell issued the following statement Thursday afternoon: "Several swab tests did show the presence of listeria on non-food surfaces in Blue Bell's Broken Arrow plant in 2013. As is standard procedure for any such positive results, the company would immediately clean the surfaces and swab until the tests were negative. We thought our cleaning process took care of any problems, but in hindsight, it was not adequate, which is why we are currently conducting such a comprehensive re-evaluation of all our operations."
"We'll get this right. Just hang in there with us," Blue Bell spokesman Joe Robertson said.
"I think it's real sad because the whole community seems to be real supportive of Blue Bell and now they're shut down for this," said Marianne Coon of Brenham. " And I know how important sanitation is."
The company also said Thursday they underestimated the time it will take to restock stores with its ice cream.
"Unfortunately, we do not yet have a firm timeline for when Blue Bell ice cream will be back in stores, but we believe at this time that it will be several months at a minimum," said Blue Bell CEO and President Paul Kruse said in a written statement. "We are evaluating all of our operations in light of this extended timeline, we are working closely with the appropriate federal and state regulatory agencies and our microbiology experts, and we are mapping out the many details of returning to production and distribution as soon as we can do so with confidence. We thank all our customers for their support and patience as we work to create the cleanest, safest environment possible to produce the high-quality, great-tasting ice cream people expect from Blue Bell."
Listeria generally only affects the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and their newborns. It can cause fever, muscle aches and gastrointestinal symptoms. It can be fatal.
The controversy hasn't stopped Blue Bell fans from making trips to Brenham, however.
"They are going to come back 150 percent, because they know how much people love Blue Bell, and they're not going to take any chances," said Elise Oren, who drove to the Brenham plant from Houston.