Blue Bell Creameries, Brenham's ice cream maker, is still seeking to win back customers lost during the listeria outbreak in 2015, is facing a new crisis of consumer confidence.
After police arrested a San Antonio teenager and a man in Louisiana this week for tampering with Blue Bell products, the 112-year-old company said it wanted to add "extra protection" to its ice cream containers. , without specifying further. Currently, the manufacturer is turning his cartons upside down and freezing the lids, creating a natural seal. Other ice cream makers use plastic gaskets, lid covers or screw caps.
"Food safety is our top priority, and we are working hard to provide a safe product and maintain the highest level of consumer confidence," said Jenny Van Dorf, a Blue Bell spokesperson, in an email. "We are always looking for ways to improve, including examining methods in our manufacturing process to add extra protection to the carton."
How Blue Bell responds to these viral videos and potential imitators can strengthen the strong reputation of its brand or cause a double dip in ice cream sales, said experts in local marketing and food safety.
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Sales of Blue Bell ice cream fell after the outbreak of listeria and rebounded slightly in recent years. According to Statista, the company has achieved an annual business turnover estimated at $ 425.8 million in 2017, still below the estimated $ 680 million in 2014, according to PrivCo. Statista and PrivCo provide financial estimates for private companies.
"I can not imagine how these videos (ice cream licking) would not affect buying decisions and consumer confidence in mid-season ice cream," said Utpal Dholakia, professor of economics and marketing at Rice University. "I know that the chances of having an altered card are minimal – virtually non-existent – but because it's a priority, you can not help but take risks. This is a huge problem for the Blue Bell brand. "
Blue Bell is not the first manufacturer of consumer products forced to deal with product tampering, called "product harm crisis" in the food industry.
Johnson & Johnson was widely praised for its response when several bottles of Tylenol were discovered related to potassium cyanide in the 1980s. The death of seven people from contaminated Tylenol resulted in a reform of the packaging of drugs on sale free and adoption of federal anti-tampering laws.
Any tampering with a consumer product can be punished with a prison term ranging from two to twenty years and a fine of up to $ 10,000.
The current state law does not require Texas food manufacturers to use tamper-proof or tamper-evident packaging, which would make it difficult or imperceptible to change the product. The state's food regulatory agencies focus primarily on preventing contamination during production and packaging, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the health department's health and safety department. # 39; State.
"Our best advice for consumers is to throw away or return any food that appears to have been altered," Van Deusen said in an email. "People should use their experience and judgment to look for any open packages or foods that do not seem quite right."
This can be difficult with Blue Bell packaging, according to Sujata Sirsat, Assistant Professor of Food Safety, Microbiology and Public Health at the University of Houston.
"Typically, with ice cream, you see a plastic seal that you have to open to reach the ice," said Sirsat. "So, it is very clear that the ice has been altered. There is really no good way to say with a natural seal. "
Late to play
Julian Jones, a retired food chemist and product developer with more than 15 years of experience working with ice cream makers such as Nestle, Baskin Robbins and TCBY Yogurt, says he's surprised that Blue Bell is n & # 39; 39; has not yet adopted more inviolability and tampering. obvious packaging after the Listeria outbreak of 2015 having sickened at least 13 people, three of whom died later after being hospitalized for another illness.
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Findings from the US Food and Drug Administration and a private laboratory revealed remediation issues at Blue Bell's manufacturing facilities in Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama, and prompted regulators the country's ice cream manufacturers to rethink long-held assumptions about cleaning and testing products. Blue Bell's spin-offs included several product recalls, the layoff of one-third of the company's workforce, a $ 850,000 fine and increased oversight by the FDA and the Texas Department of Health.
Ice cream boxes, usually made from paper, grow and shrink in response to air temperature and atmospheric pressure. With a natural seal, the ice may be exposed to dirt and bacteria, Jones said.
"Responsible manufacturers always use an internal seal or a plastic film strip to preserve the integrity of the ice cream," he said. "The lack of a seal (plastic) on current products (Blue Bell) is a consequence of low corporate prices and persistent disregard for consumer safety, which continues to permeate their environment."
Blue Bell did not respond to a request for comments on Jones' remarks, but said earlier that "any attempt to open the product should be perceptible" to consumers. The company, in response to the first viral video on ice cream licking, announced that it had removed all its Tin Roof ice cream from a Lufkin Walmart where a teenager from San Antonio had been seen in the process of open it and lick it.
A new potential packaging system at Blue Bell would likely be expensive and take months to implement, and could increase the cost of its ice cream for consumers, experts said. Jones said the company was facing a difficult decision: was she investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve its packaging or risk losing money while it? she was waiting for videos on social networks to disappear?
"Quality costs. It's a fact of life, "Jones said. "Blue Bell must accept responsibility for the fact that their containers are not hermetically sealed, and there is no way to know that their product has been tampered with."