A criminal investigation against Blue Bell Creameries has been launched following the deadly Listeria outbreak which occurred earlier this year.
The decision has been revealed on Tuesday, December 29, by representatives of the United States Department of Justice.
The inquest will be conducted by the federal department’s Consumer Protection Branch, and will be coordinated by trial attorney Patrick Hearn, who also led the probe against officials of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).
At the time of that scandal, which unfolded between 2008 and 2009, PCA was proven to be the origin of a massive contamination with Salmonella.
The outbreak, which was triggered by consumption of products containing peanuts infected with Salmonella typhimurium, caused the death of 9 individuals, sickening 714 others, who developed severe food poisoning.
Once the contamination was identified, the most widespread food recall in the nation’s history was issued, and an investigation began, which proved that executives had in fact been aware of the unhygienic conditions present in PCA facilities.
Even worse, it was revealed that Stewart Parnell, the company’s CEO, had been notified regarding the fact that products had tested positive for salmonella, but encouraged his employees to “just ship ’em”.
As a result, after pleading guilty of fraud, conspiracy and other criminal offenses, Parnell was condemned to 28 years behind bars, while his brother was ordered to serve 20 years in prison, and Mary Wilkerson, the plant’s quality control manager, received a much less stringent punishment (5 years of imprisonment).
Now, the same team that exposed the wrongdoings committed by Parnell and his associates is trying to determine if Blue Bell Creameries officials are actually guilty of similar crimes.
The probe was deemed necessary, after the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered that several issues related to cleanliness at Blue Bell’s factories were identified back in March 2013, up until January 2015.
Apparently, execs had been informed about these hazards, which were particularly significant at the Oklahoma facility, and had even been notified of a possible Listeria infestation, after the bacteria was found teeming on machinery and products on 16 different occasions.
It is also believed that alert had been raised regarding the fact that rain water had been seeping into the processing units, with condensation getting in direct contact with the food items, but supervisors found it more important to keep production going, than to take customer safety into account.
Now, the inquest will determine exactly how much information those running the Blue Bell business had been privy to, when exactly they received such warnings, and why no measures to prevent an outbreak have been ordered.
The Listeria contamination involving the hugely popular Blue Bell Ice Cream occurred in April, causing the death of three persons in Kansas, and triggering several other infections, across 4 states.
Following the outbreak, Blue Bell Creameries removed all its products from supermarket shelves, and closed down its three factories, performing thorough cleaning and sanitation so as to remove any potential source of infestation.
Lately, after the company adopted stricter safety standards and revamped its operations, Blue Bell ice cream has been making a comeback, being once again produced in its 3 facilities, and commercialized across Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi.
So far, no comments have been made by Blue Bell officials regarding this new criminal probe, and it remains to be seen what prosecutors will bring to light during the following months.
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