As crews comb a Blue Bell plant in Oklahoma for the source of a listeria outbreak, H-E-B and Wal-Mart are clearing their shelves of every product bearing the name of the Texas-based ice cream giant and will keep them off until health officials say there is no danger to customers.
Plants in Brenham, the hometown of Blue Bell, and in Sylacauga, Alabama, have increased production to make up for the shuttering of the facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, which likely will remain closed another week to 10 days, company spokesman Gene Grabowski said in a telephone interview.
Grabowski said he has heard that some retailers are removing only those treats produced in Oklahoma, while others have taken a more drastic approach.
H-E-B, Waco’s dominant grocer, “has decided to withdraw all existing Blue Bell products from our shelves due to food safety concerns,” spokeswoman Leslie Sweet said, adding that the chain is awaiting further direction from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Listeria is a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteria, and primarily affects the elderly, pregnant women, newborns and people with weakened immune systems. Symptoms of a listeria infection are fever and muscle aches, sometimes associated with diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms.
Blue Bell had not faced a product recall in its 108-year history, but now is dealing with its second this year, both involving listeria. The bacteria was traced to production at the Oklahoma plant and previously in Brenham. Authorities have blamed three deaths in Kansas on the earlier outbreak, saying the tainted ice cream was produced at the Brenham plant.
“We are devastated and know that Blue Bell has to be and can be better than this,” Paul Kruse, Blue Bell CEO and president, said in a statement. “Quality and safety have always been our top priorities. We are deeply saddened and concerned for all those who have been affected.”
Grabowski said the listeria scare traced to the plant in Brenham has been contained and that the company’s attention now is focused on the facility in Oklahoma. It has issued a list of codes that products made in Oklahoma contain on the packaging, and retailers are urged to pull these from their shelves.
Area stores react
In Waco, the Target Greatland store on Bosque Boulevard has joined H-E-B and Wal-Mart in yanking all Blue Bell products, regardless of their origin.
At the Brookshire’s grocery store on Peplow Drive in Robinson, customers can buy Blue Bell items not appearing on the list of recalled merchandise.
“We’re carrying the product made in Texas, and that includes half-gallon cartons,” said Shawn Sanders, assistant store manager.
At Drug Emporium, Bosque Boulevard at Valley Mills Drive, an employee who did not want to give her name said, “We haven’t pulled any of our Blue Bell because we’re not affected.”
Marc Curliss, 51, of Waco, a shopper Tuesday at the H-E-B on South Valley Mills Drive, said he has been following news of the Blue Bell recalls.
“I guess I’m just going to eat fruit,” he said with a smile. “Now, if it was July or August, I might have to find me some Blue Bunny or Braum’s somewhere.”
Curliss said he thinks Blue Bell will recover from the recall and the bad publicity because it has a generally good track record and a quality product.
Destiny Ethridge, 25, another H-E-B shopper, said her two children, ages 1 and 6, love Blue Bell ice cream more than any other brand.
“But they’re not getting any,” she said, adding they will simply do without until the chain restocks its shelves with the label.
They could find themselves longing for their favorite frozen treat a long time, because H-E-B’s Sweet said it will not rush into action.
“We will replenish our shelves with new product as soon as feasible,” she said. “We have no timetable.”
Grabowski, the Blue Bell spokesman, said crews are taking a methodical approach to rooting out the source of the listeria at the Oklahoma plant.
“Once we identify the source, and we’re close, we will sterilize the place completely,” Grabowski said.
He said the recall and the issues associated with it “will prove costly, but we want to regain the loyalty we’ve enjoyed with our customers for generations.”
He said those commenting on the customer hotline “overwhelmingly are wishing us well, and I think that’s because of our history of doing things right.”