A Texas ice cream company has pleaded guilty to distributing contaminated goods and its former CEO has been charged with conspiracy and attempted wire fraud in connection to a 2015 listeria outbreak that left three people dead, federal prosecutors announced Friday.
Blue Bell Creameries agreed to pay more than $19 million in fines and forfeiture as part of a plea agreement on two misdemeanor counts for shipping contaminated ice cream, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Former CEO Paul Kruse was charged with seven felonies for allegedly concealing what the company knew about the listeria contamination. The case was filed in a federal court in Austin.
Kruse's lawyer, Chris Flood, said his client is innocent and that he and other Blue Bell employees "did the best they could with the information they had at the time."
"Five years ago, we were heartbroken about the events that led to our voluntary recall of all our ice cream from the market," Blue Bell said in a statement on Friday. "We faced a situation our company had never dealt with before, and our agreement with the government reflects that we should have handled many things differently and better. We apologize to everyone who was impacted, including our customers, our employees and the communities where we live and work."
The company added that it "learned hard lessons" from the outbreak and that food safety is its "highest priority."
Prosecutors said the total sum to be paid by Blue Bell is the second-largest ever paid in a food-safety case.
Three deaths, 10 hospitalized
The charges stem from a listeria contamination that Blue Bell Creameries told federal inspectors it believed spread through a drainage system at an Oklahoma plant. The warned against consuming any Blue Bell products.in April 2015 after 10 people in four states were hospitalized after eating listeria-tainted ice cream. Three deaths were reported in Kansas, and the Centers for Disease Control
The company subsequently recalled 8 million gallons of ice cream. It was forced to lay off 1,450 employees, or more than a third of its workforce. Blue Bell now has roughly 3,000 workers.
Blue Bell said it has implemented a number of safety measures to guard against future episodes of food contamination. Those include enhanced sanitation at its three manufacturing facilities; creating a separate hygiene department; restructuring its quality assurance and control departments; and implementing a testing program to spot warning signs of listeria.
Blue Bell was founded in 1907 and prior to the recall, it was the nation's number three ice cream maker and sold in 23 states, mostly in the Southeast.