Sept. 18 (UPI) -- Blue Bell Creameries has been ordered to pay more than $17 million in penalties for shipping products connected to a listeria outbreak in 2015.
The Justice Department announced Thursday that the Brenham, Texas,-based ice cream maker was sentenced to pay $17.25 million by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin after pleading guilty in May to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products. The penalty was consistent with the terms of the plea agreement, prosecutors said.
"American consumers must be able to trust that the foods they purchase are safe to eat," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the Justice Department's Civil Division. "The sentence imposed today sends a clear message to food manufacturers that the Department of Justice will take appropriate actions when contaminated food products endanger consumers."
The plea deal said Blue Bell distributed ice cream products that were manufactured under unsanitary conditions and contaminated with listeria. Texas officials notified the company in February 2015 that samples of its products tested positive for the foodborne bacterial illness, and while the company removed its remaining stock of the affected products it did not initiate a recall or inform customers of the potential contamination, prosecutors said.
Blue Bell ordered a recall in March 2015 but after a strain of listeria connected to its product had been confirmed to have sickened five people at a Kansas hospital, according to the Justice Department.
"The health of American consumers and the safety of our food are too important to be thwarted by the criminal acts of any individual or company," Judy McMeekin of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said. "Americans expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity."
After pleading guilty in May, Blue Bell issued a statement apologizing to those affected.
"We face a situation our company had never dealt with before, and our agreement with the government reflects that we should have handled many things differently and better," it said. "We apologize to everyone who was impacted, including our customers, employees and the communities where we live and work."
The penalty imposed Thursday is one of the largest ever issued in a food safety case. In April, Chipotle Mexican Grill agreed to pay a $25 million fine, which is the largest to be issued, due to being connected to several foodborne illness outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 customers between 2015 and 2018.