Founded in 1907, Blue Bell Creameries is an American food company that manufactures ice cream, and was recently hailed as being the second highest-selling ice cream brand in the United States as a whole. Blue Bell ice cream is only sold in the South Central and Southern United States, leaving just 19 states to taste the delectable flavors; flavors range from the classic Homemade Vanilla to my personal favorite, Tin Roof (vanilla ice cream with a rich fudge swirl and roasted peanuts dipped in dark chocolate), served in the standard half-gallon container.
In early 2015, disaster struck Blue Bell when its products were linked to ten listeria-related illnesses, including three deaths. Diehard fans of this 109-year-old, family-run operation mourned the loss of Blue Bell products from each state after shutting down productions in various facilities. The recall included disposing eight million gallons of ice cream, while the company immediately commenced cleanup and repair operations at their manufacturing facilities. Based on its report in the summer of 2015, the FDA was able to link the three deaths to a manufacturing plant in Oklahoma. From the halted productions, Blue Bell terminated 37% of its employees and risked shutting down the company entirely; shareholders were informed of executives facing a “capital crisis”. One month later, however, Blue Bell secured a $125 million loan to continue its operations. The actions before and during the listeria outbreak tie into a consequentialist theory of ethics, but more specifically, a utilitarian style of decision-making.
Based on the principle of utility, a certain ethical decision should maximize benefits to society and minimize the harms. Ultimately, one would approach a certain ethical dilemma by identifying alternative actions and their consequences (harms and/or benefits) for all stakeholders. Before the official recall and FDA investigation surrounding the listeria outbreak, Blue Bell repeatedly found listeria in one of its facilities. By using proper contamination techniques and standard sanitization practices, the outbreak might have been completely avoided. Thus, executives did not necessarily think of the harmful consequences of Blue Bell’s unsafe operations, and several people were affected by such negligence. Two years later, the outbreak was publicized while external parties repeatedly reprimanded Blue Bell. Executives weighed their options and shut down manufacturing facilities before the FDA began investigating; by shutting down operations, the benefit of potentially saving other individuals from the bacteria was maximized and the harm of potentially making others ill was minimized and eliminated. Several employees lost their jobs, but correcting the contamination and sanitization issues was a matter of life or death for random individuals purchasing Blue Bell products.
Even after the listeria outbreak and substantial loss of capital, one might assume executives at Blue Bell continue to face ethical dilemmas and decisions every day. Who should be better protected after weighing the costs and benefits? Is this ethical theory necessarily fair? Especially when the benefits barely outweigh the harms, how certain is the individual that he/she made the best ethical choice? Ultimately the resolution must have the greatest net impact on society from a utilitarian perspective.
Blue Bell ice cream continues to be loved by Southerners (and Central Southerners) in the United States. In August of 2015, Blue Bell launched a five-phase plan to return products to store shelves. Blue Bell has come a long way, and the customers remain loyal. At one point, half-gallon containers of ice cream were being sold on eBay and people rationed their intake to savor each spoonful, for the unsettling fear of Blue Bell permanently halting operations. Customers can now roll through the isles and see freezer shelves stocked full of Blue Bell ice cream (still in limited flavors). So eat on Southerners! Ice cream has never tasted so satisfying.