Food fraud takes many forms. When a food company makes deceptive claims about its products to gain an economic advantage, that is food fraud. The American company Blue Bell Creameries created a deadly food fraud incident in 2015. Now the former president is facing a grand jury and potential jail time over his role in the affair.
At a glance:
- Blue Bell and its former president have been accused of covering up food safety problems.
- Three people died and at least 10 more were sickened by dangerous bacteria after eating Blue Bell ice cream.
- After authorities stepped in, the company had to shut down production, lay off a third of its workforce and risked liquidation.
- The former president of the company is facing a grand jury on fraud charges and, if found guilty, could be jailed.
- The company has already paid fines and penalties totaling more than $19 million.
Blue Bell Creameries is one of America’s largest ice cream manufacturers. Early in 2015, Texan authorities notified Blue Bell that two of its products contained a dangerous bacterium: Listeria monocytogenes. Listeria isn’t your average run-of-the-mill food poisoning bacterium; it has a high mortality rate in vulnerable populations, affects pregnant mothers and older people severely, causes miscarriages, stillbirths and deaths. The other scary thing about Listeria is that it survives – even thrives – in low temperatures. Like in ice cream.
For an ice cream company, finding Listeria in your product is a terrible thing. Your consumers are in danger and should be protected at all costs. All the affected product should be immediately recalled from the marketplace, customers should be informed of the problems, consumers should be told to discard the food, more testing should be done to see how many other products are affected and manufacturing should be halted until the source of the contamination has been found and eliminated. As you might imagine, the costs to the company can be astronomical. Worse still, the damage to a brand from having to tell consumers that there is a dangerous pathogen in your food can be severe.
In February 2015, Blue Bell knew there was Listeria in its products. Yet it did not tell its customers. Instead, it’s alleged that Blue Bell’s president, Paul Kruse, chose to cover up the Listeria problem. He allegedly directed that the Listeria testing program be discontinued. He did not immediately initiate a recall, despite supposedly telling authorities that one was underway. He put consumers at risk. Three people died and at least 10 became ill from the Blue Bell outbreak. Paul Kruse has been charged with seven counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and will be appearing before a grand jury in Texas next week. If found guilty he could be jailed.
A recall did eventually get underway, in April 2015. Consumers were alerted, the company had to shut down production, resulting in mass lay offs and causing liquidity problems.
The company has already pleaded guilty to distributing adulterated food products. It was sentenced to pay criminal penalties of $17.25 million. Separate civil claims have been paid out by Blue Bell after shareholders and customers, including the American military, alleged that the ice cream was manufactured in unsanitary conditions and that management paid little regard to food safety ‘red flags’. The total monies paid in fines, forfeits and civil settlements amount to $19.35 million, the second largest amount paid for a food safety matter.
Often, when people talk about food fraud, they focus on adulteration, like ‘fake’ honey made from sugar water. But food fraud takes many forms. In the case of the deadly Blue Bell Listeria Outbreak, it can come at a high cost to the perpetrators and an even higher cost to consumers.