In a televised CBS News report, former workers at Blue Bell Creameries are blowing the whistle on management, claiming that complaints about cleanliness and sanitation at the Brenham, TX plant went ignored before a Listeria outbreak earlier this year caused 10 illnesses and three deaths. 

Blue Bell first recalled some of its products in March after three hospital patients in Kansas died after eating ice cream products. The same strain of Listeria continued to sicken more people, eventually leading to the company’s recall of all its products--8 million gallons of it.

Terry Schultz--a machine operator at the Brenham, TX plant--said there were many times he arrived to work and there was “ice cream all over the floor”, and that “sometimes the machines would just go haywire; the product would continually run through the conveyor belt and just drop right onto the floor.”

Because stopping to clean would slow down production, workers were encouraged to leave the mess and continue working. This created plenty of opportunity for Listeria bacteria to grow and thrive. Schultz says that his complaints to supervisors were completely ignored. Both he and another worker--Gerald Bland--got the underlying message that production and money were more important than cleanliness and sanitation.

Bland also described other instances of unsanitary practices, including pouring ice cream and fruit juice drippings--often contaminated with machine oil--into barrels of ice cream mix for later use. He also says that rain water frequently accumulated inside the plant, trickling from the roof and down the wall and creating moist conditions for Listeria to flourish.

Accounts from Schultz and Bland do line up with what’s been reported by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There were reportedly no unannounced FDA inspections at the Brenham, TX plant. Inspections were also conducted by the U.S. Army, who had a $4.8 million contract with Blue Bell. When the Army arrived on-site, workers say they typically had 15 to 20 minutes to get their areas into shape.

In May, Blue Bell CEO Paul Kruse announced the layoffs of 1,400 employees, including Schultz and Bland. It was the first mass workforce dismissal in the company’s history. By August, the company had been given the all clear to resume the production and distribution of ice cream made in one of its Alabama plants after implementing a new cleaning and sanitizing program, along with intense food safety training for plant employees. Ice cream produced by the Brenham, TX plant returned to some store shelves in late August--just in time for Labor Day weekend festivities.

In response to CBS News’ report, Blue Bell says:

"We are committed to ensuring that we are producing a safe product through our enhanced manufacturing procedures, including increased focus on sanitation and cleaning, ongoing evaluation from independent microbiologists, voluntary agreements with our state regulators, and finally, a test and hold procedure."

Blue Bell still cannot distribute any products until they are tested and confirmed safe. The Brenham, TX plant is still officially closed.