Blue Bell and the Immaculate Listeria Outbreak

After months of quietly pulling specific products in an effort to avoid a scandal, on April 20, Blue Bell, the beloved Southern ice cream company, recalled all of its products. The slow-moving incident started in January, when two inspectors found Listeria Monocytogenes in two products from the Brenham plant which the CDC matched to a 2014 outbreak. Without announcing anything, Blue Bell responded by retrieving only products made on the same line, in the same plant. A month later, the line was shut down and a small recall was made public. But Listeria kept showing up in different products made in different plants, prompting Blue Bell to respond unilaterally. By then, shady details were surfacing. Based on FDA inspection reports, Blue Bell was aware of the Listeria problem for at least the last two years, and testing connected the company to 10 separate cases of Listeria infection dating back to 2010.

Public outrage about the incident flared on social media, but not at the responsible party. To most people, the real tragedy was losing Blue Bell ice cream, perhaps permanently, at the height of spring. Their faith in Blue Bell as a company could not be shaken, despite a seemingly daily update confirming Blue Bell’s culpability in the contamination that claimed three lives.

To Blue Bell fans, their memory of the incident is only a Blue Bell-less summer. The PR response from Blue Bell was minimal because a spontaneous, grassroots campaign did the work for them. The only apology came after the April 20 recall, and it was accompanied by little explanation.

I was confused every time I saw people on Facebook share news about Bluebell. If the story was about the outbreak, the accompanying comment conveyed a blind devotion to the ice cream and a belief that this event represented an evil thing happening to a good company. It was not just my Facebook friends exhibiting a flood of support for the struggling company. Lawn signs were distributed that read, “God bless Blue Bell” with the company’s logo. Ted Cruz posed for a photo with a similar sign. A prayer vigil was held in Brenham. Judging by these reactions, you would think that people see bacterial contamination as a work of the devil instead of the predictable result of years of bad hygiene.

What does it take for a brand to skate through such a scandal untarnished in a society where a bottle of hand sanitizer adorns almost every desk, antibiotics are liberally ingested, and expiration dates are gospel? Consider a 1993 E. Coli outbreak known simultaneously as the “Pearl Harbor” and the “9/11” of the food industry. Contaminated frozen burger patties were sent out to 73 Jack in the Box restaurants in four western states. Many burgers were served without being cooked at the proper, bacteria-killing temperature. A ton of people got sick, and four kids died. People were furious with Jack in the Box. The restaurants were inundated with angry phone calls accusing them of being baby killers.

Jack in the Box had to beg customers to come in by offering dramatically slashed prices; still, people avoided the restaurant. Jack in the Box had to completely rebrand itself with an aggressive marketing campaign to come back from the edge. Jack, the company’s suit-wearing clown mascot, murdered the entire board of the company while maintaining a cool composure in this commercial. I guess this was supposed to be the company’s Phoenix myth, but if you ask me, I think it’s a disturbing attempt to gratify a bloodthirsty public with sweet revenge. Interestingly, nobody was actually fired, let alone blown up, but the spectacle worked.

There are a number of differences between the two cases that could explain why Blue Bell got off relatively easily. The scale of the Jack in the Box outbreak was much larger (although the amount of deaths caused was almost the same). Blue Bell killed elderly people, and Jack in the Box killed one baby and three very young children. And media has certainly changed in the past 20 years.

While I can’t prove it to you, despite all of the differences, I think Blue Bell’s Christian ethos is what saved it from the kind of excoriation typically reserved for food poisoners. Blue Bell was saved because it is saved. The third-largest ice cream producer in the country wins devotion by convincing its customers that it is not the third-largest ice cream producer in the country. Blue Bell’s brand is protected by a halo of small town values and a Southern aw-shucks attitude summed up by one of their slogans, “we eat all we can, and sell the rest” —Jesus, they must eat a lot of ice cream if they produce 100,000 gallons a day and only “sell the rest”.

Blue Bell is currently in phase one of its resurrection with phase two coming soon. B Fans of the ice cream faithfully share each new press release from the company on social media with fanatic enthusiasm. A scan through recent tweets containing the word “Blue Bell” reveal people planning road trips to areas covered by phase one, people complaining about their withdrawals, and at least one person blaming democrats for the shortage. It was weird.

Perhaps people don’t believe that Blue Bell did anything wrong in the first place. Thankfully, we have plenty of disgruntled former employees that Blue Bell cut loose because of the recall who can clear that up. The picture is clear: Blue Bell sacrificed sanitation for growth. Many employees were aware of the issues, which they reported to their supervisors to no avail. We don’t have to wonder if the incident was a freak accident that may or may not have been caused by the devil.

Blue Bell is not your neighbor making hand-churned ice cream for their backyard barbecue. They are a large company managing multiple ice cream factories. Being in God’s favor is no substitute for best hygiene practices.

Sanitary food preparation should not be left to fate. Listeria is a common genus of bacteria that, unlike other microbes, thrive at low temperatures. While infectious microbes are a formidable and often unpredictable foe, we trust our food manufacturers to put safety above all else. Blue Bell’s actions were inexcusable and directly caused three deaths. I’m disturbed that they were let off the hook so easily. I guess I just don’t understand how people can be so loyal to an ice cream company. Is it really that good?