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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Blue Bell Missed Warning Signs to Avoid Listeria Contamination, Illnesses, Recalls, Layoffs and ?

warning_0The Dallas Morning Tribune posted this morning:

The FDA published the four inspection reports on its web site this morning in response to a request by The News under the Freedom of Information Act, reports that joined the three others from 2015 the FDA had previously released.  The state inspections were done under contract with the FDA, a spokeswoman said this morning. They show that:

In 2009 an inspection of the company’s Brenham plant, an inspector dinged the plant for failing to take “all reasonable precautions to ensure that production procedures do not contribute contamination from any source.” On July 23, a stainless steel pipe conveying liquid caramel was located directly over a three-gallon filler station for Triple Caramel Ice Cream. Condensate had collected on the pipe and about 1 drop of condensate per minute was observed falling into the empty three gallon carton just prior to shipping and packaging. Condensation was also observed dripping onto an ice cream sandwich wafer just before it was filled with ice cream and packaged.

In 2012, inspectors checking the Broken Arrow, Okla., plant observed: An employee was witnessed repeatedly handling raw ingredients, or touching surfaces that would come into contact with food, with a hand that was also scratching his head, touching his waistband, and adjusting his cap. Several buckets of ingredients that were to be added directly to the food mix were kept in buckets with dried yellow or reddish residue on their sides and lids, in violation of safety and cleanliness standards.

The newly released reports also include two inspections of warehouses, one in San Antonio and one in Houston.

In 2007, an inspection of a Houston warehouse found that ice build-up, condensation and a broken light shield directly above 3-gallon containers or cases of frozen Vanilla Ice Cream were observed.

In 2014, at an San Antonio warehouse, inspectors found “pallet debris” mixed with some food ingredients at the rear side of the frozen storage area.

Noted food safety attorney Bill Marler told my colleague Karen Robinson-Jacobson said that reports like these that highlight condensation and the handling of raw ingredients should have been considered “warning lights,” for Blue Bell.  “That’s the thing you’d be worried about: cross contamination,” Marler said. “The reports don’t mention Listeria but [they’re] telling you that your plant processes are not up to par. You have a risk of moving pathogens from non [foods] contact surfaces to contact surfaces.”

As I said to the Austin American-Statesman:

“These two observations from 2012 don’t indicate that there is a good understanding of the fact that you need to use good hygiene and cleanliness to make sure you are not cross-contaminating,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food-borne illness attorney.

The findings, which are not glaring clues that listeria could follow, could still signal “warning lights” of potential problems later found at both plants, Marler added.

The listeria outbreak has idled operations at Blue Bell’s four production facilities, triggered layoffs of hundreds of workers and sparked a nationwide recall of 8 million gallons of its ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks.

Thursday’s release by the FDA also included two Texas state health department inspections at Blue Bell’s warehouses in Houston in 2007 and San Antonio in 2014, where condensation and minor issues, such as a broken light shield, were found.

The reports precede an FDA visit to Blue Bell’s manufacturing plants earlier this year, in which evidence of listeria was found, among other extensive concerns.

“These (earlier) inspection reports — they certainly aren’t as extensive or as bad as the 2015 reports — but these certainly show that you’ve got these two plants where the FDA is addressing concerns that they think the way the plant is constructed could lead to bacterial contamination,” Marler said, referring to the 2009 report. The reports, overall, “are warning lights.”

While the earlier reports stop short of mentioning listeria, it’s the dangerous bacteria that inspectors worry can be spread by leaky condensation, plant construction and cleanliness issues. The leaky condensation concern is tantamount to a leaky roof and a familiar theme to the FDA’s 2015 reports, Marler added.

“They are not specifically saying they are worrying about listeria, but the reason you would be worried about condensate dripping on food is because you are worried about listeria,” he said.