Earlier this year, Blue Bell Creameries shut down its factories due to a listeria outbreak that affected 10 people and killed three. For the first time in months, former Blue Bell employees divulged what the sanitation conditions were inside the Texas plant.
In April, Blue Bell recalled 8 million gallons of ice cream. It used to be the number three ice cream brand all over the United States, but after the outbreak, the company had to stop production.
"It's a fantastic product and they've done a lot for this community, but at the same time, there's a bad side to Blue Bell where everything was overlooked," said Terry Schultz who operated a machine at the Brenham Blue Bell factory.
Schultz described how unsanitary the working environment was. He said that machines that malfunctioned caused ice cream to spill out all over the factory floor. Stopping to clean the mess would slow down production so no one bothered to clean it up anymore. This kind of environment enabled the listeria bacteria to flourish.
Schultz said he had brought the complaint to management, but nothing was done. He concluded that for the company, production was probably more important than cleanliness.
Gerald Bland, another former Blue Bell employee who ran the fruit feeder in a different area of the Brenham plant, said that he was told to pour fruit juice and ice cream into barrels. The problem was, the fruit juice was contaminated with machine oil, but they were still told to keep the barrels of ice cream mix for later use. He also said that rain water from the roof often trickled into the factory, occasionally even flooding the area and causing the walls to become moist.
All these descriptions matched the U.S. Food and Drug Authority's findings.
FDA inspected the Brenham plant in March and discovered paint chipping from the ceiling directly above an ice cream mixer, condensation dripping into the ice cream, and lots of dirty equipment.
Before the outbreak happened, the Brenham factory went through state inspection every six weeks. The Army, which reportedly had a $4.8 million-dollar contract with the company, also came by to check.
Even after news reports of the people who got infected with listeria circulated, Bland says that nothing changed within the other Blue Bell plants. "The last two weeks was when they changed wash-up procedures and they started retraining some of us," he said.
In August, Blue Bell had returned to stores with a limited selection of ice cream flavors. However, the company still can't distribute any products unless they are tested for safety.