Federal prosecutors charge former Blue Bell CEO with wire fraud, say he knew ice cream was potentially unsafe
Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries knew the company's ice cream didn't meet state standards — but kept shipping it to customers for years, according to federal court records filed on Friday.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas charged former Blue Bell CEO Paul W. Kruse on Friday with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and six counts of wire fraud.
Kruse knew that Blue Bell ice cream produced had high levels of coliform bacteria, an indicator of unsanitary conditions at manufacturing plants, according to the criminal information against Kruse. Blue Bell occasionally had levels of coliform bacteria so high that the company referred to them as "TMTC" — an acronym for "Too Many To Count."
In at least one instance, Blue Bell also knowingly shipped ice cream that tested positive for listeria, a potentially harmful bacteria, to customers and destroyed records that documented the test results, according to the criminal information.
"Based on the instruction from PAUL KRUSE to stop the Listeria testing program, another Blue Bell employee destroyed hard copy and electronic records of the two presumptive positive test results," according to the criminal information. "Blue Bell subsequently shipped the products that tested presumptively positive for Listeria to customers without any further testing."
In the criminal information, federal prosecutors accuse Kruse and other Blue Bell employees of participating in a conspiracy to conceal listeria contamination from customers.
Blue Bell also submitted false statements to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, claiming it recalled contaminated products, according to the criminal information. Blue Bell hadn't recalled the products — or notified customers.
In 2015, three people died after a listeria outbreak linked to Blue Bell products, according to the Associated Press.
If convicted on the conspiracy charge, Kruse faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Court records don't list an attorney for Kruse. Asked about the allegations, Blue Bell released a statement:
"Five years ago, we were heartbroken about the events that led to our voluntary recall of all our ice cream from the market. 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.
"Today we are a new, different and better Blue Bell. Our agreement with the government involves events that took place five years ago before we shut down and revamped our production facilities and procedures. Since resuming production in the summer of 2015, we test our ice cream and deliver it to stores only after independent tests confirm it is safe.
"We learned hard lessons and turned them into determination to make the safest, most delicious ice cream available. We believe we are a leader in ice cream safety, with upgraded production facilities, training, safety procedures, and environmental and product testing programs. We have worked closely with federal and state regulators as we implemented comprehensive food safety measures. We brought in independent food safety experts and consultants to ensure transparency and accountability. Food safety is our highest priority, and we know we must continue to be vigilant every day.
"We are grateful to our employees who go above and beyond to make safe, delicious ice cream. We are grateful to our amazing customers, who stood by us and are the very best in the world. We have been humbled by your loyalty and support and are committed to doing everything we can to continue to earn your trust."
Blue Bell declined to comment on Kruse.
"In response to the question about Paul Kruse -- Paul Kruse left his position as CEO and President of the company in February 2017 and left the board in February 2019," according to the statement. "He is no longer employed by or a director of the company so it would not be appropriate for us to respond."