AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) -- Blue Bell Creameries will have to pay $17.25 million as a criminal penalty stemming from their role in a 2015 listeria outbreak that killed three people.
The fine and forfeiture amount is the largest-ever criminal penalty following a conviction in a food safety case, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.
The sentencing in U.S. District Court comes after the Brenham, Texas, company pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products. The multi-million dollar fine is consistent with a plea agreement reached with the company back in May.
According to the plea agreement, Blue Bell acknowledged that it failed to recall contaminated products or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential listeria contamination.
However, the company was informed about samples testing positive for the dangerous pathogen, prompting Blue Bell officials to direct delivery route drivers to remove remaining stock of the impacted products, the Justice Department stated.
The listeria strain linked to one of the Blue Bell products sickened five patients at a Kansas hospital.
The FDA, CDC, and Blue Bell all issued public recall notifications on March 13, 2015. Subsequent tests confirmed listeria contamination in a product made at another Blue Bell facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, which led to a second recall announcement on March 23, 2015.
Inspectors later found sanitation issues at the Oklahoma and Brenham facilities, prompting temporary closures of the Blue Bell plants.
Since the outbreak, the Justice Department said Blue Bell has enhanced the sanitation process and enacted a program to test products for listeria before they go out to consumers.
The company highlighted those corrective actions in its statement following the record penalty.
"Today's court action closes a difficult chapter in Blue Bell's history. We are a new, different and better Blue Bell. We learned hard lessons and turned them into determination to make the safest, most delicious ice cream available, with upgraded production facilities, training, safety procedures, and environmental and product testing programs," the company said in a statement.
Blue Bell continued, "Food safety is our highest priority, and we know we must continue to be vigilant every day. We are grateful to our employees and our customers. We have been humbled by your loyalty and support and are committed to doing everything we can to continue to earn your trust."