Blue Bell's former president, Paul Kruse, faces charges accusing him of covering up the listeria outbreak. File Photo by Gary C. Caskey/UPI | License Photo
May 1 (UPI) -- Blue Bell Creamery has agreed to pay a $19.35 million settlement and plead guilty to charges it shipped ice cream contaminated with listeria, which led to three deaths in 2015, the Justice Department announced Friday.
The settlement is the second-largest fine paid to settle a food-safety issue.
"American consumers rely on food manufacturers to take necessary steps to provide products that are safe to eat," said Jody Hunt, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Division.
The Brenham, Texas,-based company pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products, resulting in a $17.25 million fine. It paid another $2.1 million fine to resolve allegations the company violated the False Claims Act.
In addition to the company's settlement, the Justice Department levied charges against the former Blue Bell President Paul Kruse, accusing him of covering up the contamination. Federal prosecutors said he deceived certain Blue Bell customers after he learned about the listeria contamination.
"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," the Justice Department said.
"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."
Blue Bell released a statement saying it "should have handled many things differently and better."
"Today we are a new, different and better Blue Bell. Our agreement with the government involves events that took place five years ago before we shut down and revamped our production facilities and procedures."
In 2015, Blue Bell recalled all of its products after three people died and several were sickened following a listeria outbreak. The company temporarily shut down operations and laid off a third of its workforce.