Town prays for Texas ice cream maker linked to listeria

Alice Stern and Billie Schomburg were among the more than 200 people who gathered at a prayer vigil Saturday to show what they say is their unwavering support for Blue Bell Creameries, which is working to resume operations after a series of listeria illnesses linked to its ice cream prompted the company to recall all of its products.

The two friends and residents of Brenham, Blue Bell's hometown in Southeast Texas, said they're confident the company will discover how its products became infected with listeria and that things will soon be back to normal for Blue Bell. The company, which started small more than a century ago and is now the third-largest ice cream maker in the country, has a devoted following, particularly in Texas.

"I had some last Thursday night as a snack. ... I didn't lay awake worrying about having eaten it," said Stern, 74.

"And it was business as usual," Schomburg, 80, added.

Listeria was first tracked to a production line in Brenham, triggering an initial recall of some products. It was later linked to a facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, which was shut down. Blue Bell announced a complete recall on Monday after more of its products tested positive for listeria. The company's ice cream has been linked to 10 listeria illnesses in four states, including three deaths in Kansas.

At Saturday's nearly hourlong vigil at Brenham's town square, pastors offered prayers for those who were sickened by listeria.

"It has grieved our hearts that our beloved product ... could ever become a source of harm to anyone," said Phil Fenton, a pastor with St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The Rev. Randy Wells, with St. John's African-Methodist Episcopal Church, told the crowd, many of whom wore shirts and paper hats with Blue Bell's name on it, that the ice cream maker would come back "stronger than ever."

Blue Bell officials have said the company doesn't expect to lay off any of its 3,800 employees at its plants in Brenham, Oklahoma and Alabama. But all of the plants will remain closed through at least next week while the company conducts intensive cleaning and employee training.

Howard Kruse, the longtime ex-CEO of Blue Bell, told Saturday's crowd that the company is working tirelessly to pinpoint the source of the listeria.

"I can assure you that this situation, whatever is the problem, will be solved," Kruse said.

Xanna Young, who wore a T-shirt to the prayer vigil that read "I Get Cranky Without My Blue Bell," said she is ready to eat Blue Bell again.

Blue Bell is "part of our community, so that when they're hurt, we're hurt," said Young, 73.

Listeria primarily affects pregnant women, newborns, older adults and people with weakened immune systems. Illnesses have been reported in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona. Those sickened fell ill between January 2010 and January 2015.