Blue Bell Creameries is back in the news after federal prosecutors announced the company has pleaded guilty to “distributing contaminated goods” and former CEO Paul Kruse has been charged with conspiracy and attempted wire fraud. The charges stem from the infamous 2015 listeria outbreak and recall that sickened many and resulted in three deaths.
In the statement, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that Blue Bell will pay more than $19 million in fines and forfeiture—the second largest amount paid in resolution of a food-safety matter—as a result of the plea agreement related to misdemeanor counts of shipping contaminated food products.
Kruse is facing seven felony charges for “allegedly concealing company information” related to the deadly listeria outbreak. His attorney says Kruse is innocent of these charges. Speaking about this case, DOJ Civil Division assistant attorney general Jody Hunt told the media, “American consumers rely on food manufacturers to take necessary steps to provide products that are safe to eat … The Department of Justice will take appropriate action where food manufacturers ignore poor factory conditions or fail to abide by required recall procedures when problems are discovered …”
As Kruse awaits his day in court, the news about the case highlights an ongoing PR crisis for Blue Bell. According to recent media reports, federal investigations after the 2015 contamination crisis “revealed sanitation issues, including problems with water needed to properly clean and deteriorating conditions …”
Speaking about that incident in the context of the recent plea agreement, Blue Bell released a statement that read, in part: “Our agreement with the government reflects that we should have handled many things differently and better … We apologize to everyone who was impacted, including our customers, our employees and the communities where we live and work. Today we are a new, different and better Blue Bell …” The statement added that the company brought in “independent food safety experts” to “ensure transparency and accountability …”
That “new and different” level of “transparency and accountability” is something people are clearly wondering about. Consumers rely on food manufacturers and distributors to operate within a spectrum of acceptable business practices that will protect people and their families that choose to purchase a company’s products. This trust is strained each time a company is in the news about issues with product quality or safety. From a proactive consumer PR standpoint, building and maintaining that baseline of trust is vital to the success of a brand. And multiple missteps which damage that trust create a serious PR crisis.
Blue Bell has been working to regain consumer confidence since the 2015 outbreak and subsequent illnesses and deaths. That effort took a setback in 2016 when news of a product recall hit the news cycle. In that case, the company pointed the finger at a third-party supplier. It also acted quickly, pulling all potentially contaminated products and telling the media that no illnesses related to that recall had been reported.
This response showed a company that took a bad situation and acted quickly enough to protect consumers. While news of this problem the year after a major PR crisis bruised the company’s consumer reputation, the quick response showed consumers that Blue Bell had learned from past errors and was employing more effective mitigation strategies.
But another consumer confidence setback in 2019 has customers asking if the company had learned enough from its recent food safety issues. In the summer of 2019, Blue Bell was back in the news, caught up in one of the more bizarre stories of the year when a 24-year-old woman was caught on surveillance camera in a Walmart licking an open carton of Blue Bell brand ice cream and putting it back in the freezer.
That store location was forced to dispose of all its Blue Bell ice cream. Blue Bell also issued a statement saying, “We believe we have recovered the half gallon that was tampered with …” The company added, “out of abundance of caution, (we) removed all Tin Roof flavor half gallons from local Lufkin (Texas) Walmart shelves …”
In a subsequent statement, Blue Bell thanked customers for alerting the company to the “food tampering” incident. “We take this issue very seriously … This will not be tolerated. Food safety is a top priority, and we work hard to provide a safe product and maintain the highest level of confidence from our consumers …”
One of the biggest questions asked by consumers at the time was why the company didn’t have some kind of protective seal on the ice cream carton that might’ve prevented this kind of incident from happening. Blue Bell responded to these questions, saying: “During production, our half gallons are flipped upside down and sent to a hardening room where the ice cream freezes to the lid creating a natural seal … Any attempt at opening the product should be noticeable …”
This response served to inspire some consumers to ask if, maybe, the “natural seal” was not quite good enough. With the recent headlines, some consumers are asking those questions all over again. These questions define an ongoing negative narrative the company has yet to get out ahead of. Time will tell if “transparency and accountability” are good enough for concerned consumers.