Judge Robert Pittman has signed an order delaying the Blue Bell ice cream criminal trial by four months and six days. Jury selection for the prosecution of Blue Ball’s retired president will begin at 9 a.m. March 14, 2022, in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Texas in Austin.
Defense attorneys for the 66-year old Paul Kruse requested the delay because of conflicts with other trials and the complexity of preparing for the Blue Bell trial. Government attorneys did not oppose the continuance.
“The court finds good cause for this extension,” Pitman’s order says. The judge found “that the ends of justice served by allowing the defendant the additional time in which to prepare” outweigh the best interest of the public and defendant for a speedy trial. The 2021 start date for the prosecution could have denied Kruse’s defense counsel adequate time to prepare, according to court documents.
Kruse entered a “not guilty” plea on Nov. 4, 2020, to a charge of conspiracy and six counts of fraud.
A federal grand jury for Western Texas brought charges against Kruse on October 20, 2020, for alleged crimes that occurred during the deadly 2015 listeria outbreak associated with Blue Bell Creameries’ ice cream products.
The government first brought the exact same charges against Kruse on May 1, 2020, without getting a grand jury indictment, only to see the charges dismissed by the court for lack of jurisdiction.
Federal courts in 2020 ceased most grand jury proceedings because of the pandemic. But Kruse would not waive his right to be indicted by a grand jury, forcing the dismissal of all charges in July 2020.
Government prosecutors returned the same charges on Oct. 20, 2020, as a grand jury indictment.
Kruse, an attorney, retired four years ago as Blue Bell’s longtime chief executive. The U.S. District Court for Western Texas in Austin is hearing the case against him. Kruse is a resident of Brenham, TX, where Blue Bell Creameries is headquartered about 90 miles east of Austin.
As a corporate entity, Blue Bell pleaded guilty in a related case in May to two counts of distributing adulterated food products in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The company agreed to pay criminal penalties totaling $17.5 million and $2,1 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations regarding ice cream products manufactured under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities, including the military. The total $19.35 million in fines, forfeiture, and civil settlement payments was the second-largest amount ever paid in the resolution of a food safety matter.
At issue in the criminal charges is Kruse’s role in the 2015 listeria outbreak, in which Blue Bell brand products were the source. A total of 10 people with listeriosis related to the outbreak were reported from 4 states: Arizona with 1, Kansas with 5, Oklahoma with 1, and Texas with 3. All ill people were hospitalized. Three deaths were reported from Kansas.
On April 20, 2015, Blue Bell Creameries voluntarily recalled all of its products on the market made at all of its facilities, including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, and frozen snacks. It also closed its production facilities in four states. Operations have since restarted.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released the critical findings from recent inspections at the Blue Bell production facilities on May 7, 2015.
Blue Bell, including its officers and directors, have also faced civil actions by shareholders and insurance companies, resulting from the outbreak.
Listeriosis is a life-threatening infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium (germ) Listeria monocytogenes. People at high risk for listeriosis include pregnant women and their newborns, adults 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems.
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