KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A foodborne illness linked to some Blue Bell ice cream products might have been a contributing factor in the deaths of three hospital patients in Kansas, health officials said Saturday.
But listeriosis didn't cause the deaths, according to Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman Sara Belfry.
Officials have not released the names of the five patients at Via Christi St. Francis hospital in Wichita, Kansas, who developed listeriosis in after eating products from one production line at the Blue Bell creamery in Brenham, Texas.
But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the five individuals were older adults and three of them are women. The CDC did not specify the gender of those patients who died.
The five patients became ill with listeriosis during their hospitalizations for unrelated causes between December 2013 and January 2015. But hospital spokeswoman Maria Loving said she couldn't discuss why the patients were hospitalized, citing patient confidentiality laws.
According to the CDC, information available for four of the five patients shows they had eaten while hospitalized milkshakes made with Blue Bell ice cream product called "Scoops" in the month before the infection.
The FDA says listeria bacteria were found in samples of Scoops, as well as Blue Bell Chocolate Chip Country Cookies, Great Divide Bars, Sour Pop Green Apple Bars, Cotton Candy Bars, Vanilla Stick Slices, Almond Bars and No Sugar Added Moo Bars.
Blue Bell spokeswoman Jenny Van Dorf said the company has recovered all recalled products from all 23 states where they were sold, as well as those that were in storage.
Cincinnati-based supermarket chain Kroger removed recalled Blue Bell products from 860 of its 2,625 stores and the company is alerting customers through its recall notification system, spokesman Keith Dailey said in an email.
"We would not sell any product that we believed to be potentially harmful to our customers," Dailey responded when asked if Kroger has confidence in Blue Bell products not affected by the recall and that remain on store shelves.
Blue Bell says its regular Moo Bars were untainted, as were its half gallons, quarts, pints, cups, three-gallon ice cream and take-home frozen snack novelties.
The Texas Department of State Health Services said facilities like Blue Bell's are inspected on a monthly basis. The agency added that no enforcement action has previously been taken against the facility in Brenham and it is operating in compliance with food safety laws.
"Our last full inspection was February. We cited a couple minor issues but nothing related to this issue," agency spokeswoman Carrie Williams said in an email.
Van Dorf said the machine that the contamination was traced to has been shut down permanently.
It's not unusual to see listeria outbreaks linked to dairy products, including ice cream, said William Marler, an attorney who represented victims of a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people and was traced to a Colorado cantaloupe farm.
In December, an ice cream company in Snohomish, Washington, recalled nearly a year's worth of ice cream and related products because of possible listeria contamination that sickened two men.
Marler said he thought Blue Bell had responded appropriately once it knew its products were linked to illnesses and deaths. His only criticism was that Blue Bell didn't mention the patients who were sickened or died in Kansas in a statement on its Web site, instead highlighting that this was the first product recall in its 108-year history.
Listeriosis is a life-threatening infection caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes, the CDC said. The disease primarily affects pregnant women and their newborns, older adults, and people with immune systems weakened by cancer, cancer treatments, or other serious conditions.
Lozano reported from Houston.
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