(Reuters) - Texas-based ice cream manufacturer Blue Bell Creameries has agreed to pay $19.35 million and plead guilty to charges that it shipped contaminated products linked to a 2015 listeriosis outbreak, the U.S. Justice Department said on Friday.
Prosecutors also filed charges in federal court in Austin, Texas, against the company’s former president, Paul Kruse, who they said participated in a scheme to conceal from customers what Blue Bell knew about the listeria contamination.
The Justice Department alleged Blue Bell distributed ice cream that was made under insanitary conditions and contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a potentially life-threatening pathogen.
In February 2015, state officials in Texas notified Blue Bell that two ice cream products from a factory in Brenham, Texas tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
While Blue Bell took steps to remove the remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, it did not recall them or warn consumers about the contamination, nor did it after Texas officials found listeria in a third product, prosecutors said.
The company ultimately recalled the ice cream after 10 reported cases of listeria in four states were linked to its products. Three of the people sickened, all hospital patients in Kansas, later died.
Blue Bell in a statement said the plea deal involves events five years ago before it shut down and revamped its facilities. It said it was determined today to “make the safest, most delicious ice cream available.”
“We apologize to everyone who was impacted, including our customers, our employees and the communities where we live and work,” the company said.
Chris Flood, a lawyer for Kruse, said his client was innocent and with other Blue Bell employees “did the best they could with the information they had at the time.”
As part of its plea agreement, Blue Bell agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products and pay $17.25 million.
It also agreed to pay another $2.1 million to resolve civil claims regarding ice cream made under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities in violation of the False Claims Act, the department said.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Daniel Wallis