WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into Blue Bell Creameries after some of its ice creams were linked to a deadly listeria outbreak.
The criminal investigation will focus on the company's prior food safety practices as well as its response to the mid-2015 outbreak, the Wall Street Journal reported. Neither Blue Bell nor the Department have commented on the matter.
In April, the historic ice cream maker voluntarily recalled all of its products, including frozen yogurt and sherbet, after three customers were said to have died due to the listeria bacteria. Chief Executive Officer Paul Kruse said the situation was "heartbreaking," apologizing to "all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers."
CNN reported investigators from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention discovered the outbreak dates back to as early as 2010, with the bacteria lurking "somewhere in the factory the whole time," according to Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.
In response to the outbreak and a sharp decline in sale, Blue Bell laid off a third of its workforce -- over 1,400 full and part-time employees -- and furlough 1,400 others before launching a five-phase plan to recover sales.
The company is reportedly entering the program's final stages, which includes large shipments to southern states, beginning Jan. 18. "At the completion of this phase all the company's furloughed employees will have returned to work," the company said in a recent statement.
Blue Bell commenced shipments of its products to Oklahoma and Texas stores in August and have been expanding their shipments since.