Blue Bell Creameries is laying off 1,450 workers across the country and closing a distribution center in South Carolina, one month after the company began recalling its ice cream products due to an outbreak of the bacteria listeria that killed three people and sickened seven others.
The company said Friday it would lay off 750 full-time and 700 part-time employees. It would also furlough 1,400 of its 3,900 employees. Paul Kruse, Blue Bell’s CEO and president, called the reductions an “agonizing decision.” Employees at distribution centers in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia were affected.
Blue Bell recalled all of its products, including ice cream and frozen yogurts, April 20 due to possible contamination by listeria monocytogenes, bacteria that are especially dangerous for people with weakened immune systems. Although listeria can be killed in cooking and pasteurization, it grows well in cold temperatures and thus is particularly suited for ice creams and other frozen treats.
Evidence emerged in early May that Blue Bell Creameries had known for years about a possible contamination, ever since listeria bacteria were first detected at a plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in 2013. Nevertheless, it failed to eliminate the bacteria, and as investigators from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined, “The procedure used for cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and utensils has not been shown to provide adequate cleaning and sanitizing treatment.”
In late April, Blue Bell announced it would “embark on an intensive cleaning program” that included retraining employees. It also temporarily closed production plants in Texas and Oklahoma. But as the company noted in its statement Friday, “The process of cleaning and improving Blue Bell’s four production plants is going to take longer than the company initially anticipated.” It offered no clear timeline for when Blue Bell would begin making ice cream again, but said when production does restart, “it will be limited and phased in over time.”
By Elizabeth Whitman