- Former Blue Bell President Paul Kruse was charged by a federal grand jury with wire fraud and conspiracy as part of what investigators say was a plan to cover up a 2015 listeria outbreak that sickened 10, killed three and resulted in all of the company's products being recalled.
- The corporate side of the ice cream giant pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food products into interstate commerce in May, and agreed to pay $19.25 million in fines and forfeitures. This is the second largest food safety-related fine levied by the U.S. government. Blue Bell was sentenced last month.
- This is the second time in recent months that Kruse has been charged in connection with his role at Blue Bell during the outbreak. He was charged in federal court with seven felony counts in May, but his lawyers petitioned to have the charges dismissed because they did not come through a grand jury. The U.S. Justice Department said in a release that grand juries were not serving at the time because of the coronavirus pandemic. The first set of charges were eventually dropped in July.
The challenges facing the former CEO of Blue Bell continue to pile up.
According to the indictment, Kruse had been familiar with unsanitary conditions in the company's factories in Brenham, Texas and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma since 2010. In early 2011, employees sent 12 samples of products that were indicating high levels of bacteria to be further tested for listeria. Instead of ordering repairs at the factories, Kruse ordered the company to stop testing for listeria, the indictment says.
In February 2015, when the company was informed that products had tested positive for listeria, Kruse did not issue a recall, the indictment says. Instead, he ordered delivery drivers to pull products from shelves and invented reasons that they needed to go — including manufacturing irregularities or broken machines. The company issued a report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration saying that Blue Bell was recalling flavors of ice cream that had been found to contain the pathogen, but did not. The company didn't issue any statements disclosing the contamination, and products were not recalled for two more months, only after state and federal officials got involved.
The events described in the indictment are nearly identical to the ones from the criminal charges that were dismissed in May.
Kruse retired from Blue Bell in 2017, though at the time he remained a member of the company's board. He left the board last year, according to KWHI. At the time of his retirement, Kruse had been at Blue Bell 31 years, starting to work there in 1986. He'd been CEO since 2004, and was the third generation of his family to work at the ice cream company.
As a company, Blue Bell has been working to get past this outbreak. The ice cream manufacturer overhauled its manufacturing facilities, closing all of its plants in April 2015 to remedy all of the deficiencies that led to the outbreak. They reopened later that year, and have been ramping up manufacturing and distribution since.
In the five years following the outbreak, Blue Bell has expanded its distribution area to Virginia, the Kansas City area, Indiana, New Mexico and Kentucky. According to Statista, Blue Bell was the third best selling branded ice cream last year, with sales totaling $567.8 million. The statistics powerhouse calculated 10.37 million Americans consumed four or more quarts of Blue Bell ice cream in 2019.
Kruse may not be so lucky. Executives that are charged separately in food safety cases may find themselves serving long prison sentences. Former Peanut Corporation of America CEO Stewart Parnell is serving a 28-year prison term after a jury found him guilty of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter to manufacturers and stores in 2008 and 2009. The outbreak killed nine and sickened more than 700. His brother, Michael Parnell, was a broker who provided Kellogg with the tainted peanut paste and is serving a 20-year sentence.
A long sentence is not a guarantee, though. After pleading guilty to misdemeanor counts, egg moguls Jack and Peter DeCoster were each sentenced to just three months in prison for selling tainted eggs that may have sickened 56,000 in 2010.
While food safety outbreaks are sometimes the result of oversights, criminal charges against executives such as Kruse often occur when that doesn't appear to be the case. The fact that government investigators went back and refiled nearly identical charges using a grand jury shows how important this case was to them. While federally mandated food safety protocols have increased since this outbreak because of the Food Safety Modernization Act, these charges demonstrate the importance of executives' roles in maintaining safe manufacturing processes and informing the public of problems.