© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Listeria Outbreak Traced To Ice Cream Plant In Texas

Blue Bell Creamery

The foodbornelisteria outbreak that sickened five patients and contributed to the deaths of three at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis in Wichita was traced to a production line at Blue Bell Creameries' ice cream plant in Brenham, Texas.

Kansas health officials say that they initially matched the listeria found in two patients at Via Christi with listeria found in an ice cream product food sample in South Carolina. Around the same time, Texas health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had traced the South Carolina listeria to the plant in Brenham.

“KDHE (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) has already done our own look-back at the people who have gotten listeria in Kansas within the last year, and we know only those five cases relate to this outbreak,” said Sara Belfry, a KDHE spokeswoman.

The illnesses and deaths were first reported by KDHE on Friday, when the agency said it was working with federal and Texas health authorities to investigate five listeriosis cases in Kansas linked to ice cream products made by Blue Bell Creameries.

The five came down with the infection sometime between January 2014 and January 2015 after they were hospitalized for unrelated problems in the same hospital. KDHE did not identify the hospital but it was later revealed to be Via Cristi Hospital St. Francis.

On its website, Via Christi said it was not aware that the products were contaminated with listeria and immediately removed all Blue Bell Creameries products once it was discovered.

Roz Hutchinson, a hospital spokeswoman, declined to comment beyond the hospital’s written statement.

According to the CDC, four of the five patients had consumed milkshakes made with a Blue Bell ice cream product called “Scoops” before they contracted listeriois. Although the fifth patient’s strain of listeria did not match those in the ice cream samples, the CDC said that epidemiologic evidence suggested that the patient's illness was related to them.

The Food and Drug Administration says listeria bacteria were also found in samples of Blue Bell Chocolate Chip Country Cookies, Great Divide Bars, Sour Pop Green Apple Bars, Cotton Candy Bars,Vanilla Stick Slices, Almond Bars and No Sugar Added Moo Bars.

After South Carolina officials isolated the bacteria from Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and Great Divide Bars, Texas health officials collected product samples from Blue Bell’s plant in Brenham, according to the CDC. The agency said those samples yielded bacteria from the same ice cream products tested by South Carolina and also from Scoops, which came from the same production line.

Blue Bell said it had shut down the production line and removed any products made on it.

Belfry said it was important that consumers who purchased the products in question discard them.

Listeria is a bacterium found in soil, water, raw milk, poultry and cattle. The deadliest case of listeria was in 2011, when 30 people died after eating cantaloupe from a Colorado farm. Ultimately, the farm was shut down, the farm owners pleaded guilty to criminal charges and several lawsuits were filed.

Belfry said listeria has an incubation period of up to 70 days, meaning a person can consume tainted food and not display symptoms until 70 days later.   

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.