Three people in Kansas have died and two others became ill from eating Blue Bell ice cream contaminated with listeria, according to the state health department.
Blue Bell CEO Paul Kruse said Friday that Food and Drug Administration investigators think all five victims were patients who ate Blue Bell products at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis in Wichita.
In a statement, Via Christi said it was “not aware of any listeria contamination in the Blue Bell Creameries ice cream products and immediately removed all Blue Bell Creameries products from all Via Christi locations once the potential contamination was discovered.”
On Friday, the FDA warned consumers not to eat 10 types of novelty products made by Blue Bell Creameries because they may be contaminated with the bacteria. The products have been pulled from store shelves and from hospitals but may still be in home freezers.
Cups, pints and half-gallon containers of Blue Bell ice cream are not involved.
Kruse said Blue Bell, about three weeks ago, collected and disposed of all the snack foods that health officials told them might be involved.
Investigators have visited their manufacturing site in Texas, he said.
“They feel that this one production line we use here is what might have caused the problem,” Kruse said. “It’s a complicated piece of machinery, it’s been down for about a month and a half, and what we’re likely going to do with it is throw it out the window, so to speak.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with state health department officials from Kansas and Texas, are investigating the outbreak in Kansas.
All five people who became ill were adults and were patients at the same hospital, health officials said. Patient records show that at least four of them were served Blue Bell ice cream.
Kruse said investigators are looking at a Blue Bell product called Scoops as a potential cause. “It’s an ice cream serving the hospital uses to make malts out of,” Kruse said. The product in question was shipped to seven hospitals, including the three Wichita area hospitals run by Via Christi, Kruse said.
Via Christi Hospital St. Francis identified five patients who became ill with listeriosis during their hospitalizations for unrelated causes between December 2013 and January 2015, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
Health officials would not release the name of the hospital or the names or hometowns of those who became ill. But according to Kansas Department of Health and Environment statistics, Kansas has recorded six cases of listeriosis since January 2014. Of those six victims, two are from Sedgwick County and one each is from Harvey, Wyandotte, Shawnee and Ford counties.
Blue Bell, the company, has existed for 108 years and has not had a problem or a recall until now, Kruse said.
“So we know how to do it right,” he said. “And now we have to look at what happened here.”
The CDC estimates that 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths from listeriosis occur annually in the U.S.
The Blue Bell outbreak appears to be the first confirmed for 2015. Last year, there were four outbreaks of listeriosis, according to the CDC. Those outbreaks occurred in prepackaged caramel apples, sprouts, and cheese and other dairy products.
The ice cream that made the people sick came from the Blue Bell Creameries production facility in Brenham, Texas, according to the FDA.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environment originally detected the contamination on Feb. 12, 2015, during routine sampling of ice cream products. The Texas health department then collected samples from the Brenham plant and found the bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes.
The Listeria bacterium can grow at temperatures as low as 40 degrees and has the chance to grow the longer it is in refrigeration, according to the FDA.
People who suspect they may have had the contaminated products in their homes are advised to wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator and sanitize them with one tablespoon of chlorine bleach mixed with a gallon of hot water.
Symptoms of listeriosis begin three to 70 days after consuming contaminated food and include fever, muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions. Anyone who experiences fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms, or develops fever and chills after eating the ice cream should seek medical care and tell their health care provider they have eaten the ice cream.
Pregnant women, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems are at the most risk. About 14 percent of cases occur in pregnant women, and infection can lead to miscarriage and preterm labor. About 58 percent of cases occur in those over 65.
Friday, the FDA warned that people who have bought the following Blue Bell Creameries novelty items should discard them:
▪ Chocolate Chip Country Cookie
▪ Great Divide Bar
▪ Sour Pop Green Apple Bar
▪ Cotton Candy Bar
▪ Vanilla Stick Slices
▪ Almond Bar
▪ No Sugar Added Mooo Bar (regular Mooo Bars are not included in the warning)
▪ Six-pack of Cotton Candy Bars
▪ Six-pack of Sour Pop Green Apple Bars