I love Blue Bell ice cream. When we lived out of state for a number of years, I remember it being a legitimate choice to consider having it shipped to us in dry ice rather than settling for Blue Bunny, or some other inferior northern brand. On one visit home to Texas, driving between Austin and Houston, we stopped at a barbecue place in Brenham. We asked if they could make us milk shakes out of Blue Bell. Barbecue places don’t make milk shakes. But on that day, for a displaced Texas family, that one did. And it was the highlight of our trip.
I also love baseball and Texas A&M, and you cannot think of the two of those together without thinking of our beautiful Blue Bell Park. The Kruse family has been a great friend to this university, and Blue Bell CEO Howard Kruse even spoke to my son personally when he was considering his college choices.
But today, in real time, Blue Bell is grappling with one of the biggest crises in its long history. The presence of listeria in food is not a new thing, and it is one of the risks a food creating and food handling business develops systems to guard against. Obviously, at some level, those systems have not been effective enough at Blue Bell, and that is true in multiple locations. And when people are harmed, any corporation can expect its motives to be questioned and probed.
But corporations do not have motives; people do. The people who run Blue Bell have built up tremendous goodwill over the years through the way they have run their business. Still, as news stories develop over weeks and months, light will be shone on the best and the worst of habits in the company, because that is what makes interesting news. The evidence that seems to point to slow moving calculations of effects will be criticized. Aggressive assumption of duties will be lauded.
Blue Bell’s overriding duty in this situation is to prevent harm from coming to people through the company’s products. That is why the decision to recall all Blue Bell products has been generally praised. It is a defensive decision, one that is designed to prevent harm at any cost. But this is not what companies like Blue Bell are normally designed to do.
Companies that produce ice cream are designed to maximize pleasure, not minimize harm. And companies that are designed to maximize pleasure run on calculations. Some companies are more utilitarian, calculating the greatest good for the greatest number, and these are often viewed as socially responsible. A stadium or theater venue that holds certain numbers of seats at a low price, or those that give back to their communities, fall into this category. Others only calculate the benefit for the company and its shareholders, generally with the goal to maximize profits. Even if they are involved in charitable giving, it is only as a means to protect the bottom line. But whether they are utilitarian or egoistic, virtually all companies that maximize pleasure run on calculations.
Blue Bell is one of these, and the initial response to the evidence of listeria was guarded; it was targeted to head off the harm without unnecessarily disrupting operations. It was the rational response of a pleasure maximizing entity. But there was a point where Blue Bell’s role changed, since they were effectively put in a position where they were the only party that effectively could prevent harm. The question at that point is, “Will the corporation shift its point of view and assume its overriding duty to prevent harm to consumers?” More precisely, will the people who run the company assume that overriding duty and bear the costs that go with it?
When companies make decisions like Blue Bell did, people will still say that companies are calculators, and that they pull their product to avoid lawsuits. While this is potentially true, it is hardly a criticism to say that people are rational. When the calculation aligns with the overriding duty, the decision is an easy one.
Had it reached that point at Blue Bell? No one can say for sure. But since there is obviously no motive to harm consumers, and management progressed rather quickly from a broad partial recall to a total recall, the decision looks to be one of willingly assuming that overriding duty rather than risking further harm to consumers. Blue Bell changed its role from pleasure maximizer to harm minimizer.
There are other duties that Blue Bell needs to fulfill in order to prevent future harm, and their press releases indicate that they are aware of those. I would imagine that systems put in place in the next six months will be markedly different than the ones that have been there for decades. Until these are completed, the public will be wary.
But doing this well will allow Blue Bell to return to doing what it does best—maximizing pleasure. And that includes providing milk shakes for all those Texans who wander home and remember why it is they love this place.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics