Paul Kruse, the former CEO of US ice cream business Blue Bell Creameries, has been charged in connection with a 2015 listeria outbreak traced back to the firm’s products.

Last month Blue Bell was handed a fine of more than US$17m by a federal court over the listeria outbreak and now the US Department of Justice (DoJ), has indicted Kruse, alleging he tried to conceal from customers what the company knew about listeria contamination in certain Blue Bell products.

Ice cream distributed by the Texas-based firm was linked to ten cases of listeriosis in four states, including three deaths further north in Kansas, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In an indictment filed in federal court in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday (20 October), Kruse, who was also the company’s president and chairman, was charged with seven counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with an alleged scheme to cover up the company’s sales of listeria-tainted ice cream in 2015.

According to the indictment, Texas state officials notified Blue Bell in February 2015 that two ice cream products from the company’s Brenham, Texas, factory tested positive for listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous pathogen that can lead to serious illness or death in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, new-born babies, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. 

In its statement, the DoJ said Kruse allegedly orchestrated a scheme to deceive certain Blue Bell customers, including by directing employees to remove potentially contaminated products from store freezers without notifying retailers or consumers about the real reason for the withdrawal.  

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The indictment alleges that Kruse directed employees to tell customers who asked about the removal that there was an unspecified issue with a manufacturing machine. The company did not immediately recall the products or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential listeria contamination.

Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general of the DoJ’s Civil Division, said: “American consumers trust that the individuals who lead food manufacturing companies will put the public safety before profits. The Department of Justice will take appropriate action against those who ship contaminated products and choose not to tell consumers about known risks.”

Blue Bell pleaded guilty in May to two counts of distributing adulterated food products in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The company temporarily closed all of its plants in late April 2015 to clean and update its facilities. 

In May this year, Blue Bell released a statement that said the company was “a new, different and better” business.

Kruse stepped down from his roles at Blue Bell in 2017.