It will cost millions and require strong evidence of beefed-up safety standards.
But legal, food service and retail experts expect Blue Bell Creameries, owners of an iconic Texas brand that’s normally found in freezer sections at Kansas City area grocery stores, to survive the current storm — a potentially brand-busting tempest fueled by at least eight cases of listeria-related illness linked to Blue Bell products.
One month after Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell issued its first product recall in 108 years, a company spokesman said the ice cream maker and its newly hired consultants still are busy trying to find the source of listeria, a potentially deadly bacteria, in its shuttered plant in Broken Arrow, Okla.
Company officials have had no time to tally up the cost, either monetary or in goodwill, said spokesman Gene Grabowski.
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Based on past cases, outside observers foresee a seven- or even eight-figure price ahead. But they see the brand’s loyal following among retailers, and almost cult-like adulation among consumers, as the dominant tailwind.
“Blue Bell is going to spend a great deal of money to … look back at its entire manufacturing supply chain to try to get an explicit understanding of how this happened,” said Larry Keener, president and chief executive of International Product Safety Consultants, which helps food makers improve their safety and sanitation procedures.
“That’s a very expensive undertaking,” said Keener, whose Seattle-based company is not involved in the Blue Bell case. Added to the facilities costs are outlays related to the recall, which has been expanded twice, and lost product sales from major venues.
“I would suggest this is going to cost them between $4 (million) and $10 million,” he said.
That does not include any fees or settlement costs in the lawsuits that attorneys say are certain to come.
Grabowski said he’s unaware of any cases filed to date. But he knows “there are, as you probably have seen, a number of plaintiffs firms that are trolling for business like vultures.”
“You can expect some consequences after the recall has been expanded twice as it has,” said Grabowski, an outside media consultant. “We have been pleasantly surprised and gratified by the number of retailers who have stayed with us and continue to sell the product that we have on the shelves.”
The company’s initial recall notice, posted on its website March 13, was terse. Just six sentences, it never mentioned that the recalled product has been linked to five cases of listeriosis reported in a Wichita hospital. Three of the hospital patients, all elderly, died.
Health officials said the ice cream, packaged for food service customers rather than retailers, might have been a contributing factor in the deaths. But listeriosis didn’t cause the deaths, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
The lack of overt sympathy for the victims, which now includes three in Texas, irks attorney Bill Marler of Seattle-based Marler Clark, one of the nation’s top food safety attorneys.
“The only criticism I really have for Blue Bell is they seemed so focused on themselves and less on the people that had gotten sick,” said Marler, who also publishes the website FoodSafetyNews.com.
“Right now they’re facing a growing number of people who are sick … related to eating their product. That really should be the focus, showing some sympathy and empathy to those families.”
Grabowski noted that “subsequent releases have said there may be a link to the illnesses.”
If the company has few fans in the legal community, retailers and other vendors have remained steadfast even as they have yanked Blue Bell products from the shelves.
Kroger has “no issues,” with the way Blue Bell has handled the recall, grocer spokesman Gary Huddleston said.
“Blue Bell has been a very good partner for many years and has supported a large number of charitable events with us,” he said.
He said Blue Bell ice cream removed from store shelves due to the recall has been replaced with a non-affected Blue Bell product.
Rob Matwick, executive vice president of business operations for the Texas Rangers, wouldn’t rule out switching to another ice cream vendor if problems continue at Blue Bell, which has been the only ice cream served at the team’s stadium.
“If it seemed like things could linger for a longer period of time, we would consider (switching),” he said. “But we’re not at that point.”
Grabowski said he knows of no major outlets that have dropped Blue Bell permanently and said sales immediately after March 13, but before the recall expansions, were strong.
The company has received thousands of consumer calls and the “feedback has been exceptionally strong,” he added. “I’ve worked on recalls for many, many years for various companies and I have never seen such brand loyalty.
“All of that goodwill and good service and good product that’s taken place for more than a hundred years has really benefited the company in this crisis.”