Blue Bell Recalls are a Public Health Wake-Up Call

Blue Bell has just issued a total recall of its products while it resolves its recent Listeria outbreak. This is why we can't leave it to companies to inspect themselves--why we need the FDA.

Anya Vanecek

Blue Bell creamery has suffered a series of brain freeze-level headaches this spring. For the first time ever, the Texas-based company is voluntarily recalling all of its ice cream products from the market after being linked to three food-illness-related deaths.

A bacteria called listeria contaminated ice cream products from Blue Bell’s Texas and Oklahoma plants. So far,these products include Blue Bell Chocolate Chip Country Cookies, Great Divide Bars, Sour Pop Green Apple Bars, Cotton Candy Bars, Scoops, Vanilla Stick Slices, Almond Bars and No Sugar Added Moo Bars, according to FDA tests. The CDC recommends, however, that people avoid all Blue Bell products for the time being. All in all, this outbreak has caused listeriosis in a total of ten people in 4 states: Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Paul Kruse, Blue Bell’s chief executive and president, apologized in a video posted on the company’s website. Yet, this single incident isn’t the full story. “This is a complex and ongoing multistate outbreak of listeriosis occurring over an extended period,” the C.D.C. said.

Mr. Kruse said that Blue Bell is investigating the source of the contamination, which has not yet been determined. Blue Bell says it will expand its cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and surfaces, sending daily samples to a lab for testing, and begin a “test and hold” system, with products released to the market only after tests show they are safe.

You may have assumed such tests were regularly occurring, and they should have been.

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA) mandates food safety inspections conducted by the FDA every 5 years and grants the FDA the power to issue food recalls. Each company must have a written preventitive control plan, monitor the performace of these controls, and specify their plan to remedy problems that might arise. Yet, Congress is currently refusing to grant the FDA even half the money it needs to enforce the FSMA. The FDA is doing what it can, but it can’t do much without funding.

That leaves testing for things like listeria and other potential food contaminants in the hands of companies themselves. Without FDA oversight, we have no way to be sure that every food company is rigorously testing its products before they go to market. It seems unlikely that Blue Bell is the only culprit and based on this and other recent outbreaks, one thing is clear: we can’t leave our health solely in companies’ hands.

So, we’re calling on Congress to come to their senses. Public Health isn’t political—it’s one of our government’s core responsibilities.

Listeria is treatable, but potentially very dangerous. For more information, visit


Anya Vanecek

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