Cold realities at Blue Bell

Published 1:00 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The unfortunate and unfolding situation with Blue Bell Creameries is a sad lesson for the business community in just how dangerous some of the smallest things can be to a business, to say nothing of its employees and customers.

Blue Bell announced last week that it would lay off 750 full-time and 700 part-time employees — 37 percent of its workforce — and that it would furlough another 1,400 employees with plans to return them to work when production resumes again following the cleaning after a listeria outbreak caused a crisis for the ice cream maker.

About 30 employees at the company’s Suffolk distribution center were among those laid off, company officials said, and the facility has been closed indefinitely. There’s no word yet on whether the closure will upset plans for a $5.8-million, 14,000-square-foot building that was to have served as the permanent home of the company’s distribution center in Suffolk. In fact, company officials are offering no guarantees that the shuttered facilities around the nation will be reopened at all.

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The listeria outbreak has reportedly killed three people in Kansas and infected at least 10 people in four states. Listeria is extremely hard to eradicate from a food production plant where it appears, and company officials have described extensive work at Blue Bell’s four production facilities, and especially at the largest plant, located in Brenham, Texas. Since that’s an older facility, officials said, the maintenance and repairs necessary to ensure eradication of the listeria bacteria are more extensive.

To Blue Bell’s credit, when the company first learned of a cluster of listeriosis patients associated with one of its products, it voluntarily recalled that product. That was in the middle of March. Since then, company officials have moved quickly and incrementally in their responses — first recalling specific products, then shutting down production at one facility, then recalling all products and then completely halting production across all company facilities in order to begin a top-to-bottom cleaning of all the facilities.

Shutting down production is a big deal, considering the company is the nation’s third largest ice cream producer and last year put together nearly a billion dollars in sales. But the financial impact goes beyond that experienced by Blue Bell, its investors, its employees and its distributors around the nation. In Suffolk, for example, the effects could trickle down to those who work for the architects, engineers and construction companies that would have been involved in the new facility whose future is uncertain.

So far, the Blue Bell response has been seen in a generally positive light. Recall decisions appear to have been made quickly, closures handled thoughtfully and layoffs ordered only under extreme financial duress. Promises have been long-term and significant.

Those are the kinds of responses most folks want to see from a corporation in crisis. Given the information currently available, the company’s response appears to have been exemplary. We join its many fans across the nation in hoping for a successful cleanup and a quick return to full operations.