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Blue Bell issues nationwide recall of all products, as Listeria outbreak grows

Illnesses in two more states have been linked to ice cream contaminated by Listeria, federal officials said Tuesday, a day after Blue Bell Creameries issued a nationwide recall of all of its products due to an ongoing outbreak of the potentially deadly foodborne illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one person in Arizona and another in Oklahoma had been sickened by bacteria with DNA fingerprints matching those collected from Blue Bell ice cream samples. Previously, three patients in Texas and five others in Kansas have been linked to the outbreak. The illnesses date as far back as January 2010, the CDC said. All 10 patients were hospitalized, officials said, and three in Kansas died.

The CDC said samples from an additional patient with listeriosis currently are undergoing testing to determine whether that illness might also be related to the outbreak, the agency said.

The news came only hours after Blue Bell on Monday issued a recall of all products currently on the market, both in the United States and abroad, over concerns that they might be contaminated with Listeria.

“We’re committed to doing the 100 percent right thing, and the best way to do that is to take all of our products off the market until we can be confident that they are all safe,” Blue Bell's president, Paul Kruse, said in a statement posted on the Texas-based company's Web site. “We are heartbroken about this situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers. Our entire history has been about making the very best and highest quality ice cream and we intend to fix this problem.”

Blue Bell last month issued the first recall in its 108-year history after ice cream tainted with Listeria monocytogenes, the bacteria that cause the infection listeriosis, was linked to three deaths at a Kansas hospital and additional illnesses in Kansas and Texas. The contaminated products were traced to a production line in Brenham, Texas, and later to another production facility in Broken Arrow, Okla.

In recent weeks, Blue Bell expanded its initial recall after other products tested positive for Listeria, and it suspended operations at its plant in Oklahoma. The company, which has long been one of the nation's most popular ice cream makers, saw stores pull its products from shelves; major league baseball teams such as the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers said they wouldn't serve Blue Bell ice cream to fans.

The company's far-reaching recall on Monday applies to its full array of products, including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks. It affects supermarkets and other retailers who sell Blue Bell products both abroad and in nearly two dozen states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma,  South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming.

Blue Bell said Monday's decision was prompted by tests that revealed that Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream half gallons produced on March 17 and March 27 contained the bacteria. That meant the company had discovered Listeria in multiple places, and it decided to issue the recall out of an abundance of caution despite no reports of additional illnesses.

“At every step, we have made decisions in the best interest of our customers based on the evidence we had available at the time,” Kruse said the statement Monday. “At this point, we cannot say with certainty how Listeria was introduced to our facilities and so we have taken this unprecedented step. We continue to work with our team of experts to eliminate this problem.”

Blue Bell said it plans to implement a “test and hold” procedure for all products at its manufacturing facilities, meaning every pint of ice cream, every Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwich and every Mooo Bar will be tested for contamination and released only after being proven safe. They company said it also will expand the cleaning and sanitizing of its equipment, send samples daily to a microbiology lab for testing and provide additional training to employees. Blue Bell said it will resume distribution of its ice cream "on a limited basis once it is confident in the safety of its product."

Listeria generally causes only short-lived symptoms in healthy people, including headaches, nausea, fever, abdominal pain and diarrhea. But it can be particularly serious and potentially fatal in young children, elderly people or anyone with a weakened immune system. An infection also can lead to miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1,600 cases of the illness occur each year in the United States, resulting in about 260 deaths. The largest Listeria outbreak in U.S. history unfolded in 2011 and was linked to tainted cantaloupes from a single farm in Colorado. The outbreak affected nearly 150 people in 28 states, 33 of whom died.