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CDC: Blue Bell Listeria Outbreak Started In 2010

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The ice cream company Blue Bell made a stunning announcement this week. The Texas company recalled all of its products because of an outbreak of Listeria. Ten people in four different states are known to have been infected. Three people have died. And the CDC now has traced the infection back several years. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Blue Bell Creamery started as a farmer-run operation in the early 1900s in the small East Texas town of Brenham. It is now the third-largest brand in the country, very big in Texas, the South and the Midwest. So it was surprising to many here that when the first cases of Listeriosis were linked to Blue Bell ice cream, the corporate response was terse, even defensive. The company sure wasn't sounding very small town-ish. Concern for the victims was nowhere to be found, and Blue Bell was quick to assert the scope of the problem was limited, but that's turned out not to be true. The CDC has identified distinct Listeria strains, some that sickened people five years ago.

BRENDAN JACKSON: This was unusual in that we were able to go back and find illnesses that were linked up to five years ago. That's not typical in these investigations.

GOODWYN: Dr. Brendan Jackson is a medical epidemiologist at the CDC.

JACKSON: One difference this time is that we are using whole genome sequencing, basically a new technology in the laboratory.

GOODWYN: Listeria is a tricky little pathogen that likes cold, wet conditions like refrigerators. Once consumed, it can lay in ambush for days, even weeks before symptoms show up in a patient. That makes it hard to track. South Carolina health officials first made the key finding - the Listeria was in the Blue Bell. Different strains were traced to specific patients, some who'd first gotten sick years ago. It was the Blue Bell they'd eaten, but nobody had been able to figure that out, until now.

JOE ROBERTSON: That was a surprise to us, yeah.

GOODWYN: Joe Robertson is Blue Bell's advertising and company relations manager at the headquarters in Brenham, Texas.

ROBERTSON: You're going along; you're not having a problem. And we hadn't had a recall or a problem in our 108-year history. But to know that anyone may have gotten sick after eating our product, that's heartbreaking to us.

GOODWYN: Going forward the company will test every batch for Listeria before it ships. This can take days and is more expensive, but Blue Bell executives say it's vital for everyone's peace of mind, including their own. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.