by CLAYTON KELLEY
BRENHAM — More than four months into the ice cream drought, Blue Bell products are expected to begin a slow return to frozen food cases in Austin and surrounding areas by Aug. 31.
On April 20, Blue Bell Creameries recalled all of its products due to an outbreak of listeria bacteria at its production facilities. With intensive food safety measures now in place at its Sylacauge, Ala. plant, Blue Bell products will start reappearing incrementally in stores starting Monday, company spokesperson Joe Robertson said.
“We are starting small,” Robertson said. “Blue Bell plans to ship ice cream to a limited number of markets. We only have one production facility up and running in Alabama. Inventory is very limited and this, in turn, limits where we can distribute the product.”
Executives have said its products’ re-introduction to the market will be carried out in five phases, the first of which includes the Houston and Austin areas as well as the company’s headquarters in Brenham. The first phase includes Hays, Travis, Bastrop and Williamson counties, but does not include Caldwell, Guadalupe, Comal or Bexar counties.
“All of our retail partners are ready to put Blue Bell back on the shelves,” Robertson said.
Resuming production took longer than company officials expected, the Blue Bell spokesperson said. In addition to disappearing ice cream products, the crisis resulted in hundreds of employee layoffs — the first in the company’s 108-year history — and hundreds of employee furloughs, Robertson said.
“We laid off approximately 750 full-time employees and 700 part-time employees as well as putting 1,400 employees on furlough until business was able to resume,” Robertson said. So far, 350 furloughed employees have returned to work as production picks back up.
H-E-B No. 244 — San Marcos’ “big H-E-B” at 641 E. Hopkins St. — will be among the first retailers in town to restock Blue Bell products, said Patrick McBain, a department manager.
“We are expecting Blue Bell to be pro-rated here to our stores on Aug. 31, Sept. 1 or Sept. 2. However, these products being shipped to us will be in both limited quantities and limited varieties.” McBain said.
Hailey Morphis, a Texas State public relations senior who works at H-E-B, said she will not be among consumers rushing to buy Blue Bell products at the first opportunity because she thinks company executives mishandled the bacterial corruption of its plants.
Between January 2010 and January 2015, three people in Kansas died from consuming contaminated Blue Bell products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which has attributed the listeria contamination to illnesses that hospitalized ten people in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico.
“I will not be purchasing Blue Bell products anytime soon,” Morphis said, adding later: “It upsets me that it took several deaths and people getting sick before any action was taken from Blue Bell. It really shows how little this company cares about their consumers.”
Reaction among H-E-B customers in general has been mixed, Morphis said, based on reactions she has gauged.
“I personally feel like a lot of Blue Bell’s consumers are blindly loyal and are so eager for its return that they may be forgetting about the potential risks that could be involved,” Morphis said.
Texas State alumnus Paul Knight is one of those who is eager to put the Blue Bell drought behind them.
“I have missed the southern taste of Blue Bell ice cream and I am ready,” Knight said. “If the health administrators say that Blue Bell is safe to consume, then I will most definitely take their word for it.”
Tracking county-by-county progress of Blue Bell’s return to the market. Go to the map.
CLAYTON KELLEY reports for The University Star, the student newspaper of Texas State University, where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the University Star and the San Marcos Mercury.Email | Print