Employees at Blue Bell Creameries Inc., which recalled all its products after an outbreak of deadly bacteria, didn’t wash their hands after touching dirty surfaces, had soiled uniforms that came in contact with food containers, and used lax sanitary practices around shoes and beards, U.S. inspections of ice cream plants in three states found.
In inspections by the Food and Drug Administration conducted from March through this month, the agency found 26 total violations. At a Brenham, Texas, plant, six employees wore “protective beard nets without covering the mustache portion of their beard,” according to one report.
Also at the plant, ceiling paint was also chipped and cracking directly above the blender used to add liquid ingredients and sugars into raw milk, according to the reports. And condensation dripped into berry, mint chocolate and cookies ’n cream ice cream products.
And a plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, didn’t have any sanitizing procedures for employee shoes. “Shoes are worn out of the firm to employee’s vehicles and homes and then back into the sanitary food production areas each day without any cleaning and sanitizing requirements,” according to another report.
Blue Bell recalled all of its products last month following an earlier recall of some of its ice cream. At least 10 people in four states have been sickened by the tainted products, and three died after eating ice cream served by a Kansas hospital earlier this year. At least four other ice cream companies have recalled products in recent months after detecting the bacteria.
The company is finished collecting about 8 million gallons of ice cream and related products, Blue Bell said in a statement Thursday.
Production on Hold
Blue Bell originally thought it would take a month or two to get the plants back up and running. “At this point, it’s a few months at least,” Joe Robertson, a spokesman for Blue Bell, said in a telephone interview. The company is working to address the violations in the reports, he said.
At a plant in Sylacauga, Alabama, FDA inspectors saw employees out of uniform. In one case, the soiled, holey shirt of one employee came in contact with the inside of an ingredient container while loading the “fruit feeder” on the line during production of one flavor of ice cream. Employees in the plants also were observed touching their clothes or equipment and then handling ingredients without changing gloves or washing their hands.
Company testing of non-food contact areas at the Oklahoma plant turned up indications of listeria in five samples in 2013, 10 samples in 2014 and one each in January and February of this year on areas such as the floor in front of the freezer, the drain behind the flavor tank and the water hose in front of the pint filler, according to the reports.
After the FDA made public, in March, the deaths associated with Blue Bell ice cream, environmental samples collected by the FDA in Oklahoma tested positive for listeria.
Blue Bell has said is putting its plant operations employees through enhanced training about controlling the environment and preventing bacteria. The company also is continuing to test equipment and other surfaces and plans conducting extensive maintenance.