Inside the Blue Bell recall — and what happens next
As Blue Bell slowly rolls out products back to retailers, there's opportunity to examine the recall from the first sign of trouble and how the company handled it.
"They did some things that perhaps only Blue Bell can do," said Suzanne Miller, president and founder of Dallas-based public relations and crisis management firm SPM Communications, Inc.
Timeline of Blue Bell RecallFebruary 12
South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control finds Listeria monocytogenes in samples of some Blue Bell ice cream products during a routine product sampling at a South Carolina distribution center.Read more Mid-February
Blue Bell begins a withdrawal of contaminated products from retailers and institutional customers, such as hospitals, without notifying the public.March 13
Kansas health officials announce a possible link between listeriosis cases reported from several patients at the same hospital, which served Blue Bell products. Blue Bell says that it has removed the affected products from stores and institutions, which included Scoops ice cream and other products made on the same production line at the company’s Brenham, TX, facility.Read more March 22
Kansas health officials report positive test for listeria on institutional/food service ice cream cups.Read more March 23
Blue Bell recalls institutional/food service ice cream cups.Read more April 3
Blue Bell shuts down its Broken Arrow, OK, plant.Read more April 7
CDC expands case count of listeria outbreak, with illness onset dates ranging from January 2010 to January 2015. FDA notifies Blue Bell that it found listeria in samples of Blue Bell’s ice cream pints, which were collected in a joint inspection with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
Blue Bell expands recall of products manufactured in Broken Arrow plant. Broken Arrow plant reportedly had no issues after a state inspection on March 18.Read more April 20
Blue Bell recalls its entire inventory.Read more April 21
CEO Paul Kruse releases video apologizing for the recall.Watch the video April 23
Blue Bell announces it will shut down all of the company’s ice cream plants to conduct comprehensive cleaning programs as well as a new food safety training program for employees at the Brenham, TX, plant.Read more May 7
FDA releases inspection reports of three Blue Bell plants that detail numerous problems found at all facilities.Read more May 13
Reports surface that consumers are attempting to sell recalled Blue Bell products online.Read more May 14
Blue Bell signed agreements with Texas and Oklahoma state departments promising to vigorously test for and report listeria in products made at the Brenham and Broken Arrow facilities.Read more May 15
Blue Bell announces it would lay off about 37% of its workforce.Read more June 1
Blue Bell agrees to Alabama state health testing.Read more June 10
FDA report says Blue Bell can likely identify source of listeria in Alabama and Oklahoma plants but not Texas plant. CDC wraps up its investigation.Read more June 28
Reports from food safety experts surface that Blue Bell performed a quiet “withdrawal” of listeria-contaminated products before announcing the problem and recall to the public in March.Read more July 14
Test production to begin at Blue Bell’s Sylacauga, AL, plant.Read more July 14
Blue Bell announces investment by prominent Texas billionaire businessman Sid Bass, which the company says will “ensure” the future of the company and its products’ return to market.Read more July 16
Blue Bell releases terms of the investment, wherein Bass lent Blue Bell up to $125 million in exchange for 33% ownership of the company.Read more Aug 5
Blue Bell receives the OK from Alabama health officials to return to production at its Sylacauga plant.Read more Aug 11
Blue Bell begins shipping ice cream from its Sylacauga facility.Read more Aug 17
Blue Bell announces it would resume limited distribution in select markets at the end of the month.Read more Aug 31
Blue Bell products return to stores in limited parts of Texas and Alabama.Read more
What Blue Bell did right
Humility and accountability
When handling a recall, the face and voice of the company best communicate the message directly with consumers, retailers and media. If this message isn't carefully crafted, recovery efforts could mean little.
In Blue Bell’s case, humility and accountability were the stars; present in statements and videos released to the public. Words like "personal," "heartbreaking," "support," and "humbled" were commonly used and that helps consumers and retailers believe in the company throughout that difficult time, Miller said.
Sought counsel early on
A recall can leave even the largest, most organized companies with too many decisions to make and steps to take. By seeking crisis counsel early on, Blue Bell benefited from having clear and objective thinking at a time when panic could set in.
Took bold actions
After a number of piecemeal recalls, Blue Bell's decision to completely close up shop when it did was an important turn.
"Blue Bell shut down and was willing to do this during their peak selling season for ice cream," said Miller. "A shutdown is one of the most extreme things a consumer products goods company can do, and they did it."
Such a bold move was likely inevitable, as the listeria contamination had been linked to illnesses with onsets from January 2010 to January 2015, including three deaths reported.
Made consumers miss them
Pulling ice cream just before the summer season made Blue Bell's cult-like following, particularly in Texas, miss them, and now those consumers are ready to welcome them back, Miller said. This may not have been Blue Bell's intention, but the timing of the recall, while it may have hurt sales during peak season, may have had other unintended benefits in terms of recovering from the recall.
What Blue Bell could have done better
Like with any recall, companies don’t always handle every step perfectly, and some of Blue Bell’s mistakes can be a lesson to other companies.
Incremental recalls dragged on
Blue Bell didn't announce just one massive recall, but rather several smaller recalls until finally pulling all products from retailers and shutting down its creameries. This, some experts say, could have hurt the company more than if they had been more forthcoming from the beginning.
"The multiple and expanding recalls kept the company in the news for six weeks," David Sommer, the Charles E. Cheever chair of risk management at St. Mary’s University, told San Antonio Express-News in May. "It’s important to get the facts out as soon as possible. A company must be seen as proactive, not reactive."
"The result is a never-ending series of news events, as they incrementally expand the recall," Jonathan Bernstein, a Los Angeles-based crisis management consultant and author of the book "Keeping the Wolves at Bay," told Star-Telegram in April. "And every time, it associates the name Blue Bell with listeria."
Late with compassionate statement
It took about two weeks after the initial crisis for Blue Bell to offer a compassionate statement, and that could have hurt the company's reputation.
"Companies sometimes hesitate to do this because they are in the fact-gathering stage or because their attorney advises against it. That's not a good move," said Miller. "At the beginning of a crisis, the one thing a company can and should do is tell their customers how important the issue is to them and that they are looking into next steps. This allows the company the time needed to confirm the facts before they take their next step."
Few updates regarding fate of employees
The loss of more than one-third of its workforce was one of the biggest issues for Blue Bell. In a video, CEO Paul Kruse lamented the decision to lay off employees, but not much else has been said since. The products are returning to stores, but are employees returning to work?
While the company has been clear and vocal about safety measures being taken, Blue Bell "didn't update their website regarding the fate of their employees or provide background on how hard Blue Bell is working to bring as many of them back as possible. "This is a big deal," said Miller. "That would be something to address on their website for consistency."
Reasons for Blue Bell's silence on the matter could vary. Blue Bell may not be financially secure enough to bring all employees back. The company may not need all of the employees yet, as many worked at plants that are still closed. Blue Bell may also want a fresh start with new employees not previously associated with the recall. While Blue Bell may not share the exact reasons behind its employee decisions, shedding some light on the situation could help its reputation with employees and their families and communities.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams recently sorted out its employee issues after having to close up shop again in June following its own listeria recall. Jeni's offered the 40 production workers their jobs back, though the newly reopened production kitchen won't be making ice cream anymore. It will instead handle and prepare ingredients with final production done by Orrville-based Smith Dairy, which handled Jeni's ice cream production while the main kitchen was closed.
Where Blue Bell could go from here
Blue Bell is slowly reentering retail in select markets, including its home state of Texas, and those markets were likely chosen for a reason: They contain loyal customers.
"What I am most interested in seeing is how they do in the other markets outside of core markets, because you just don't know how the company is perceived," Miller said. "You have no idea if people understand their roots, their commitment, etc. So I think they'll do fine in core markets, and I'm really intrigued to see what happens in the others."
With 108 years of company history devoid of previous costly recalls, the company may be able to use that to its advantage in winning back customers in outside markets.
"The advantage of having a near-cultlike following, particularly in Texas, is they have 100-plus years of accrued goodwill," Bernstein told the Star-Telegram. "I have no doubt that cushion will get them through this, as long as they communicate going forward."