Paul Kruse, the former CEO of Blue Bell Creameries, has been charged with conspiracy in connection to the deadly listeria outbreak in 2015 that led to three deaths. Kruse retired from his position in 2017 and was the third generation in his family to run the Blue Bell company. Here’s what you need to know about Kruse and what happened.
1. Paul Kruse Is Charged with Criminal Conspiracy to Conceal the Listeria Contamination
Paul Kruse, former CEO and president of Blue Bell Creameries, is charged with criminal conspiracy to conceal the listeria contamination. Some other employees were accused of participating in the conspiracy, ABC 13 reported.
Prosecutors said that in particular, Kruse is charged with a conspiracy to conceal potential listeria contamination in Blue Bell products from customers, including telling employees to say that products were removed because of a problem with manufacturing, not because of possible contamination.
The goal was to “obtain money from Blue Bell’s customers by means of false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises,” ABC 13 reported.
The Department of Justice noted specifically:
Kruse … allegedly orchestrated a scheme to deceive certain Blue Bell customers after he learned that products from the company’s Texas factory tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. Kruse specifically is asserted to have directed other Blue Bell employees to remove potentially contaminated products from store freezers without notifying retailers or consumers about the real reason for the withdrawal. Kruse also is alleged to have directed employees to tell customers who asked why products were removed that there had been an unspecified issue with a manufacturing machine instead of that samples of the products had tested positive for listeria.”
On May 1, 2020, Blue Bell pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts related to shipping contaminated products in 2015. They’re paying $17.25 million, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release. Blue Bell is also paying $2.1 million to resolve a civil False Claims Act for a total of $19.35 million related to the listeria outbreak.
Robert E. Craig Jr., Special Agent in Charge of the DCIS Mid-Atlantic Field Office, said in a statement: “This case has been particularly concerning because of the disregard of basic food safety rules and the impact those actions can have on the health and safety of the Defense Department’s service members and their families.”
2. Kruse Is Facing Seven Felony Counts & Court Documents Allege that He Ordered a Testing Program Stopped after a Positive Result
Kruse’s charges include six counts of wire fraud and/or attempted wire fraud and an additional charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, KBTX reported. Each charge brings a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Court documents alleged that Kruse knew of unsafe sanitary conditions at facilities since at least 2010, KBTX reported. Tests of coliform bacteria from 2010 to 2015 showed high levels, which could indicate other pathogens, but products were shipped anyway, the court documents noted.
The documents noted that in April 2011, after two samples showed a presumptive positive listeria test, Kruse order the listeria testing program stopped, KBTX reported.
3. Kruse Retired from His Role as CEO in 2017
In 2017, Kruse retired from his role as president and CEO of Blue Bell Creameries but would remain on the board, The Shelby Report noted. He had started working at Blue Bell in 1986 and was elected CEO and president in 2004.
Ricky Dickson was promoted to president in 2017 after Kruse stepped down. Dickson was the first person who wasn’t in the Kruse family to be president of Blue Bell in almost a century, The Eagle reported.
Paul Kruse told Houston History Magazine about his experiences growing up in the Blue Bell family. He said he’d go to Blue Bell with his dad and uncle to check on the plant every weekend. “We would get to stand on the conveyor belts but we couldn’t go into cold storage,” he said. “…Needless to say, we don’t allow barefoot kids in the plant anymore… The whole family would go to the plant on Saturdays and wrap pieces of dry ice in the newspaper and then pack it into big green insulated Army bags along with packaged slices of ice cream. These went to Fort Hood in Killeen, and the ice cream was served to the troops.”
Kruse also told Houston History Magazine that his daughter works at the Blue Bell creamery, along with some cousins. Kruse said that he worked at Blue Bell initially while he was in high school and college, before returning after law school.
4. Paul Kruse Was the Third Generation in the Kruse Family to Manage Blue Bell
According to Paul Kruse’s bio, he graduated from Brenham High School and then Texas A&M University in 1977. He and Blue Bell gave $500,000 to A&M in 2009 to help establish a Blue Bell Creameries Chair in Business at A&M’s business school. (The bio is here, but note that a PDF will download when clicked.)
Kruse graduated from Baylor University School of Law in 1980. He said he didn’t originally plan to join the family business, but ultimately became General Counsel in 1986 and then Vice President in 1991. He was named CEO and President in 2004.
Paul Kruse was the third generation in the Kruse family to manage Blue Bell, and his family has owned the Kruse Ranch in Washington County near Brenham for more than 100 years. Kruse’s grandfather, E.F. Kruse, took over operating the Blue Bell creamery in 1919, Texas A&M reported. E.F. Kruse’s sons, Ed and Howard Kruse, later joined in leadership roles. Howard Kruse once served as president of the company.
Jim Kruse, the son of former president Howard Kruse, was named company chairman in 2017 after Paul Kruse stepped down, The Shelby Report shared.
5. In 2015, Kruse Apologized in a Video for the Outbreak
In 2015, Blue Bell recalled its ice cream after tests showed that chocolate chip cookie dough half-gallon products from March 17 to March 27, 2015 were contaminated with listeria. This was Blue Bell’s first recall in its 108-year history. People reported that they fell ill after eating Blue Bell products that were later discovered to be tainted with listeria, Dallas News reported at the time.
Five cases were first reported in Kansas, with three people dying. Despite recalls and the shutdown of one plant, more cases were reported in Texas and at other plants. As a result, Blue Bell recalled all of its products in April 2015 and shut down all its manufacturing facilities for cleaning and repair.
At the time, Kruse released a video telling customers that they were heartbroken over what happened. You can watch the video above.
Kruse said in a statement: “We’re committed to doing the 100 percent right thing, and the best way to do that is to take all of our products off the market until we can be confident that they are all safe. We are heartbroken about this situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers. Our entire history has been about making the very best and highest quality ice cream and we intend to fix this problem. We want enjoying our ice cream to be a source of joy and pleasure, never a cause for concern, so we are committed to getting this right.”
The FDA learned that Blue Bell wasn’t following standard practices that would have prevented contamination and the company had found listeria multiple times at one of its facilities before the contamination was made public. According to the Department of Justice, the FDA found that facilities in Brenham and Broken Arrow didn’t have the hot water needed to clean the equipment properly, and factor conditions were deteriorating.
In August 2015, Blue Bell began a five-phase plan to bring back its products after correcting the problems at its facilities.
The Department of Justice noted: “Since re-opening its facilities in late 2015, Blue Bell has taken significant steps to enhance sanitation processes and enact a program to test products for listeria prior to shipment.”
In total, 10 people were reportedly infected with listeria from Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. All had to be hospitalized and three people in Kansas died, the CDC reported.
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