AUSTIN — It was a long but primarily quiet Monday as a 12-man, four-woman jury was selected to hear the United States v. Paul Krause.
Kruse is the retired president of Blue Bell Creameries who, as an individual, faces federal felony conspiracy and fraud charges over how he handled Blue Bell’s role in a 2015 mysterious outbreak.
Kruse shut down Bell Blue’s multistate production and recalled all its products, but before that, the government says he suppressed and covered up Listeria contamination.
Eighty Texans from West Texas counties answered the call for jury duty. Judge Robert Pitman first warned the jurors that this trial could last three or four weeks. Jurors were first asked if the trial length would cause them hardship. About 20 said it would, citing self-employment, moving, pre-paid vacations, and starting school.
It was primarily a quiet day because jurors were individually questioned “at the bench” for the ears of the judge and one or two attorneys from each side. Any juror who wanted to “approach the bench” with something private was also welcome to do so.
The prospective jurors were all asked if they knew anything about the “2015 Blue Bell recall” and their source for the information. They were then asked if they could still render a fair verdict in the case based only on the evidence they’d hear in court.
Seven years have elapsed between the listeriosis outbreak and this trial. Some jurors did speak up for all to hear. When the government asked if anyone might have a problem with “cooperating witnesses,” some did. One woman said “cooperating witnesses” do so under the threat of themselves being charged, and she could not imagine being under that kind of pressure for seven years.
When the judge asked for a show of hands of those who’ve purchased Blue Bell ice cream, almost all hands went up. About half stayed up when asked if they had Blue Bell in their home freezers now. And close to one-quarter were veterans of the famous Blue Bell plant tour in Brenham, TX.
Today’s opening arguments will likely focus on conspiracy and fraud, the heart of the charges.
Each count coincides with 67 days in the spring of 2015 when Blue Bell was confronting a small but deadly listeriosis outbreak.
The outbreak was one of the first where the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) used a retrospective review of the PulseNet database for DNA fingerprints to match isolates collected from Blue Bell ice cream samples.
It found ten people infected with several strains of Listeria from four states: Arizona (1), Kansas (5), Oklahoma (1), and Texas (3). Illness onset dates ranged from January 2010 through January 2015. Three people died.
It likely means that by the time the outbreak was known, it had done its damage.
Blue Bell Creameries recalled on April 20, 2015, all products currently on the market made at all of its facilities, including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, and frozen snacks.
Blue Bell announced this recall after sampling by the company revealed that Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream half gallons produced on March 17, 2015, and March 27, 2015, contained Listeria.
The Grand Jury indictment of Kruse is based mainly on a half dozen emails from Blue Bell employees. These included:
According to the indictment, a Blue Bell sales employee by email told a Florida school district ice cream was removed for a problem with a manufacturing machine, “a statement created by Paul Kruse.”
A restaurant chain asks why ice cream was removed, and a sales staff email also cites a problem with the manufacturing machine.
Email from a Blue Bell sales employee in Oklahoma City, OK, to Arkansas retail chain failed to disclose certain presumptive positive and confirmed positive for possible Listeria contamination.
A sales employee’s email to a Wichita, KS, hospital did not disclose that the “Scoops” product was unavailable but did not say it was removed due to potential Listeria contamination.
A third-party distributor in Maryland asked a Blue Bell sales employee why the Broken Arrow facility was closing without any recall. The sales employee responded in an email that said the FDA had not informed the company of any further positive Listeria tests when additional presumptive positive tests were behind Blue Bell’s decision to close Broken Arrow.
Email from a Blue Bell quality assurance employee to an Arkansas retail chain fails to disclose confident presumptive positive and confirmed positive Listeria test results.
The company itself pleaded guilty to two counts of distributing adulterated food products in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
It paid $19.35 million in fines, forfeitures, and civil settlement payments. That total was the second largest amount ever paid for the resolution of a food safety matter.
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