Millions of Texans who have missed the “National Ice Cream of Texas” were standing in line at the store when it was returned to the freezer in the last couple of weeks. While Texas-based Blue Bell Ice Cream returns to grocery stores across their 27 state distribution area over the next few months, the Houston Chronicle’s Mark Collette has been finding out why they company shut down and recalled their entire product line this spring.
Following weeks of researching OSHA and FDA reports, Collette turned up a disturbing pattern of failures at the Blue Bell home plant in Brenham. Failures included the lack of proper training of employees on cleaning the equipment and the failure of equipment to have proper mechanical safeguards when it was shut down for maintenance and cleaning. It also details multiple accidents on the production lines in the last dozen years where employees lost fingers or pieces of fingers in the machines while the line was running.
Over that same period of time, Blue Bell doubled their production, and then doubled it again. They also added two more plants in Oklahoma and Alabama.
The original “Little Creamery in Brenham” was also home to scores of sources of contamination. Those included cleaning procedures that ran out of hot water, air conditioning vents that dripped into the product, and machines without guards or screens that would have prevented employee injuries.
While Blue Bell declined Collette’s requests for interviews regarding employee safety and product contamination Spokesman Joe Robertson offered a one-paragraph response.
We are a family at Blue Bell and we have always valued all of our employees and want them to feel safe and enjoy working here. Our employees are our company’s greatest asset and many have spent their entire careers with us. Workplace safety, sanitation, and employee training remain our highest priorities as we continuously work to improve.
In the Chronicle article, they interviewed more than a dozen long-time Blue Bell employees at the Brenham plant, with more than 210 years combined experience. They go through a familiar litany of reporting problems up their chain of command. Often those concerns would be placed in writing, only to have the problems ignored, or told to ‘clean up’ the problem just prior to health inspections. This allegedly went on without really solving the issue.
In the most recent and graphic account of problems within the plant, the former employees get into the story of On Aug. 11, 2011. Sabien Colvin was working with the machine that mixes in fruit and nuts into the line for half-gallon containers. He had turned off the fruit feeder and inserted his left hand to clear debris. Then the machine kicked on. The rotor paddles don’t move fast, according to co-worker Benjamin Ofori said, but spin with incredible torque. Colvin thought it had just nipped the tip of one finger, but when he pulled his hand out, he saw bone on three fingers. They couldn’t be reattached. Colvin had surgery and spent months in physical therapy, relearning how to pinch washers with his shortened fingers.
Collette reported that Colvin couldn’t sue Blue Bell because Texas companies that are covered by workers’ compensation are immune from civil liability for workplace injuries unless gross negligence causes a death. He got a phone call while in the hospital from a manager and $231 a week in workers’ comp for four months.
He returned to Blue Bell, figuring it was easier to keep working there until he finished at community college. They gave him a job away from the production area.
Ofori said Colvin had been trained not to put his hand in the feeder, but Colvin said he was told to turn off the machine, wash out the debris and then manually check for food particles. Both said the company unfairly blamed Colvin for the accident. Blue Bell had no comment about the incident. OSHA found the company had failed Colvin.
OSHA said Blue Bell didn’t put guards on moving machine parts and had virtually no lockout-tagout program. A federal law, on the books since 1989, requires employers to supply locks and tags to cut off power to equipment during maintenance and cleaning.
Reports indicate that during an interview with OSHA investigators, production manager Erich Glenewinkel said “he thought that some of the machines had written lockout-tagout procedures, but he’d have to go back and look,” a report states. Glenewinkel didn’t even know the machines were supposed to have written procedures, the investigator wrote. Corporate Risk Manager Howard Zuch also told inspectors that “he couldn’t say” if he had heard of the requirement.
Only 54 of about 200 production employees were trained on lockout tagout, OSHA reported. Employees said they couldn’t put it to use because they didn’t have enough locks or tags. The only safety meeting everyone attended was a few hours each December, they said.
OSHA fined Blue Bell $27,000 and then negotiated that down to $20,000. The company instituted a lockout-tagout program and placed lock stations throughout the plant.
The Chronicle reported that employees said they wouldn’t have those safeguards today had Colvin’s parents not complained, triggering the investigation.
There had been a series of accidents at the plant since 2005, according to employees who say they know the injured.
A woman lost half of her little finger when it was caught in a chain on a conveyor. The rest of the finger was surgically removed. A man lost the tip of his little finger reaching for dropped product near an unguarded chain below a Vitaline machine (One used for popsicles, that put the stick in the product). A woman’s leg was severely gouged in another moving parts accident.
But the massive recall and shutdown of production at all three facilities, and the layoffs or furloughs of almost three thousand workers, started with the increasing demand for product which led to extraordinary pressures on production. One machine in Brenham — nicknamed Gram — was running virtually 24-7, employees said. That made it hard to clean.
“It was run, run, run,” said one worker, who understood that the plant had to keep churning. “But if something’s not working right, take the time to fix it. …”
Gram, named for a company that makes ice cream equipment, produced items such as the Country Cookie sandwich and Great Divide Bar. On Jan. 1, government records show, it made a batch of Great Divide Bars that later tested positive for listeria monocytogenes, the species that makes people sick. On Jan. 20 and 29, it produced tainted batches of Country Cookies.
Collette discovered that on Feb. 13, health officials alerted Blue Bell that they had discovered the pathogen in random samples. On Feb. 19 and 21, Blue Bell’s own tests discovered Listeria monocytogenes in drains connected to the freezer on the Gram line. The company didn’t change its practices, which had thus far failed to eliminate the bacteria, FDA records show.
On March 9, Blue Bell learned of a potential link between Kansas hospital illnesses and individually packaged ice cream, produced on Gram. On March 10, it stopped using the machine. Three days later, it issued the first in a line of recalls: everything made on Gram. It later shut down all production on the same floor. Later recalls extended to all plants, as tests isolated listeria on other surfaces and in other products.
The Gram machine was so contaminated that, in its May 22, 2015 response to FDA findings, Blue Bell said it would stop using the machine permanently.
The Chronicle article continues: In one area where employees complained to supervisors and maintenance personnel, they were given a ladder and told to periodically wipe off a wet vent, which was impractical because it dripped at least once a minute, the workers said.
“It was all day, every day,” one worker said, until the plant shut down in April. Vitaline was a source of complaints even from employees in other areas. An expansion that installed a mezzanine above Vitaline stifled the air there, they said, building up even more humidity, which drifted to other parts of the plant, leading to more condensation.
Employees were told there was no solution other than moving the ceiling, “so you just basically have to deal with this problem.”
Collette wrote that the employees also had to deal with reused cardboard sleeves. Line workers placed tubs of ice cream into the oblong sleeves, which then could be stacked on pallets and delivered to stores. The cardboard would pick up dirt and debris, and carry that back into production areas.
Eleven employees said they were told to throw away damaged or dirty sleeves. But in practice, they often were used until they wore out, even if slimed with ice cream or soaked in condensation.
Blue Bell has said it will discontinue the reuse of cardboard packing sleeves. The worst grime Ofori witnessed was inside his own machine. After all parts on the ice cream line had been cleaned and replaced, he ran a final rinse. Occasionally, the mealy goo of ground up “inclusions” like pecans and strawberries would flow back into the tank, and he would have to clean again. Ofori would see the inclusions even on days when his line produced plain vanilla.
“More than listeria, there is a danger of serious allergic reaction from this,” Nial Yager said. Yager is a dairy safety expert from Washington State University who was consulted on the story by the Houston Chronicle. But Sabien Ofori, like other employees, said raising concerns about such failures generated little but admonitions to mind his own business.
Following is the schedule for getting Blue Bell back in your grocery store or mini-mart:
- Blue Bell will re-enter parts of 15 states in five phases: Brenham, Houston and Austin, Texas, areas, as well as parts of Alabama (Birmingham and Montgomery), according to the company. The next phases include:
- Phase Two: North central Texas and southern Oklahoma
- Phase Three: Southwest Texas and central Oklahoma
- Phase Four: The majority of Texas and southern Louisiana.
- Phase Five: Complete the states of Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas and begin distribution in Arkansas, Florida, northern Louisiana and Mississippi. This phase will also include only parts of the following states: Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Rob Milford is a news contributor fort Breitbart Texas. You can follow him on Facebook.