- Former Blue Bell CEO Paul Kruse plans to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce in connection with the deadly 2015 listeria outbreak caused by contamination at the company’s manufacturing facility. The fraud charges, which would have allowed up to 20 years in prison for each count, that the former executive faced will be dropped.
- Kruse will not face jail time, but will be fined $100,000, according to the plea agreement.
- Kruse’s trial last August on a litany of fraud charges related to the 2015 outbreak ended with a hung jury. His second trial was scheduled to begin on April 10.
The plea agreement ends the saga of the deadly Blue Bell outbreak. In 2015, contamination in ice cream coming from Blue Bell’s manufacturing facilities in Brenham, Texas and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma sickened 10, killed three, and led to a recall of all of the company’s products.
The company pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges for introducing adulterated food products into interstate commerce in 2020 and paid a total of $19.35 million in fines and forfeitures.
Investigators said Kruse had known of unsanitary conditions at the factories since 2010. Rather than order repairs, he ordered the company to stop testing for listeria, investigators said. And when the tainted products left the factory in 2015, instead of issuing an immediate formal recall or statement about the listeria-tainted products, he halted deliveries or recalled some products due to what he called “machine problems.” .
Although investigators built a complex case against Kruse, they were unable to convince the jury that he acted fraudulently. The Austin American Statesman, which covered the trial, reported that 10 jurors voted for a not guilty verdict, while two voted to convict.
Kruse’s attorney, Chris Flood, said in a statement to a Houston NBC affiliate that the settlement confirms what Kruse had said all along: No one at Blue Bell intended to defraud their clients.
“We are happy that the government has come to the same conclusion,” he told the station. “This is the correct result; It became clear during last year’s trial that the government overloaded the case.”
By settling the case, the US Department of Justice can hold Kruse accountable for the outbreak at Blue Bell. And while it likely won’t end up in jail for Kruse, it is a conviction.
Since 2015, Justice Department policy has been that corporate misconduct investigations focus on individual wrongdoing. This policy, outlined in a memo from former US Assistant Attorney General Sally Yates, says this strategy deters illegal activity, encourages changes in corporate behavior, and holds the right people accountable.
But pushing for convictions at trial hasn’t worked well in recent food industry cases. Five chicken executives charged in connection with a price-fixing scheme have faced three trials since 2021. Two ended in mistrials, with no unanimous verdict. The Justice Department launched a third trial of the executives, which ended in acquittals.
However, there have been successes in the trials. The former leaders of the Peanut Corporation of America were convicted by a jury and received prison sentences of more than 20 years for a major salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009.