Iconic Texas ice cream brand working to survive contamination finding, restore consumer trust

Blue Bell Creameries will survive the crisis caused by a recent recall of products prompted by a finding of bacterial contamination in some of its products, but it will take a lot of work and a lot of money, experts said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this month that three people in Texas had the same strain of listeria bacteria linked to some Blue Bell ice cream products previously found in five others at a Wichita, Kansas, hospital. Three of the five in Kansas died. That prompted the first recall in the family-owned creamery's 108-year history, and some major retail and customer clients pulled all Blue Bell products from their offerings until they could be assured those products were safe.

Consultant Gene Grabowski, who has been a "crisis guru" to food manufacturers in about 150 recalls, has been advising the Brenham, Texas-based creamery, the Austin American-Statesman (http://atxne.ws/1EXjk6R ) reported. Blue Bell, he said, has worked around the clock since the listeria concerns arose to identify and correct any contamination sources.

"This company cares more about the health and well-being of consumers than any company I've ever worked for," he told the newspaper. "This is a company that' always trying to do the right thing. This has been embarrassing for the family."

The cost of the recall and sales losses has not been tabulated, but it will likely total several million dollars, Grabowski said.

"The company hasn't even had a chance yet to turn its attention to the possibility of litigation," he said. For now, the company's sole focus is "protecting consumers and taking care of our employees."

The company continues to pay 230 employees at its Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, creamery that was shut down for sanitizing after contaminated ice cream was traced to the plant. No date has been determined for production at the plant to resume.

For now, a previously unimpeachable reputation is helping Blue Bell, said James Moody, co-founder of Austin, Texas-based advertising firm Guerilla Suit.

"I think they're in a better spot than most. They've got a pretty good reputation. It's a great Texas brand," Moody said. The recall, he added, gives Blue Bell officials a pause to "re-evaluate everything."

Blue Bell products are gradually returning to supermarket shelves. San Antonio-based H-E-B, which was one of the first chains to pull Blue Bell, is now one of the first to restock.

"Blue Bell is a brand Texans know and love," H-E-B spokeswoman Leslie Sweet said. "We don't relish impacting access to this important product, but H-E-B is committed to absolutely safe food and we needed to ensure we were standing tall in this promise."

Grabowski says the push to restock retailers demonstrates the creamery is likely to survive this crisis.

"Brand loyalty for this company is as great as I've ever seen. Consumers trust Blue Bell, they like Blue Bell, and they want to see the company succeed," he said.


Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com