The former president and CEO of Blue Bell Creameries has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Austin on seven charges in connection to an alleged scheme to cover up a deadly listeria outbreak in 2015.
According to a press release Wednesday from the U.S. Justice Department, Paul Kruse was charged with six counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The charges, according to federal prosecutors, relate to his alleged efforts to conceal what the company knew about listeria contamination in certain Blue Bell products.
The indictment states the company was notified in February 2015 by state officials that two ice cream products from the Brenham factory tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, which can lead to severe illness or death in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, newborns, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.
The indictment alleges that Kruse created a scheme to deceive customers by directing employees to remove potentially contaminated products from store freezers without letting consumers or retailers know the true reason. It also states that he instructed employees to tell consumers who asked about the withdrawal that there was an unspecified issue with a manufacturing machine. The company did not immediately recall the products or issue formal warning to customers about possible contamination.
Blue Bell recalled all products in April 2015 after they were linked to ten listeria cases in four states, including three deaths in Kansas. The company closed all of its plants the same month to clean and update its facilities, and has taken steps to enhance sanitation procedures and test products since reopening in the summer of 2015.
In May, Blue Bell pleaded guilty in a related case to two counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products. It was sentenced in September to pay criminal penalties totaling $17.25 million, and agreed to pay an additional $2.1 million to resolve civil False Claims Act allegations regarding products manufactured under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities, including the military. The total $19.35 million in fine, forfeiture, and civil settlement payments make up the second largest-ever amount paid to resolve a food safety matter.
Kruse was previously charged by criminal information in May, during the temporary closure of grand juries in the Western District of Texas due to COVID-19. The information was later dismissed without opposition from the government, but the grand jury has resumed operations and now sets out the charges against Kruse.