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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

July 2002 ConAgra E. coli O157:H7 Recall and Outbreak

On June 30, 2002, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) announced the recall of 354,200 pounds of ground beef manufactured at the ConAgra Beef Company (“ConAgra”) plant in Greeley, Colorado. According to ConAgra’s Vice President Jim Herlihy, “one sample of the product tested positive [for E. coli O157:H7], so what ConAgra did was recall the entire day’s production.” The contaminated ground beef was produced at the plant on May 31, thirty days prior to the recall, and was distributed nationally to retailers and institutions.
On July 12, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (“CDPHE”) disclosed that 17 Colorado residents had been infected with E. coli O157:H7. No source of the infections was identified at the time. Several other cases were subsequently reported in neighboring states. Three days later, on July 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) announced that the strain of E. coli O157:H7 that had infected the 17 sickened individuals was genetically indistinguishable from the strain of the recalled ConAgra beef.

After another review of plant practices and procedures on July 19, 2002, the FSIS expanded the ConAgra ground beef recall to 18.6 million pounds of ground beef. This was one of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history. The recall included all ground beef produced at the plant between April 12, 2002 and June 29, 2002. According to the FSIS, its investigation “indicated that product destined to become ground beef that was produced at the Greeley plant had a heightened possibility of containing E. coli O157:H7.” In the weeks that followed the nationwide recall, more than 45 people in 23 states reported illnesses linked to the contaminated ground beef.
In addition to reports of more outbreak victims, information about ConAgra’s and USDA’s practices began to come out. USDA inspectors reportedly first found E. coli O157:H7 at the Greeley slaughterhouses on May 9, 2002, yet they apparently did nothing with this information. The bacteria was detected several more times at the slaughterhouse over the next month, the last time being June 20, 2002. It was this last finding by the USDA that prompted the initial June 30, 2002 recall. The USDA has since been questioned about why it delayed notifying ConAgra that ground beef samples at the Greeley plant were testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 for six weeks.
In early September 2002, ConAgra officials were forced to admit that the company knew its ground beef was E. coli O157:H7-positive for two days before its June 30, 2002 recall. It rationalized its hesitancy by openly doubting the testing practices of the federal inspectors. Furthermore, ConAgra continues to refuse to turn over its internal records to the CDC for review and investigation. The company explains its refusal to cooperate with this non-partisan agency by saying it fears the CDC would mistakenly link the recalled ground beef to the dozens of illnesses reported nationwide.
ConAgra’s early stonewalling and inexplicable delays meant that consumers continued to buy and eat a potentially deadly food product. Safeway, Kroger, and Wal-Mart, three of the main retail chains that accepted and sold ConAgra’s contaminated ground beef, were kept as in the dark as their shoppers. No meat was pulled from store freezers, nor were any warnings about food safety issued by these outlets. Reacting to ConAgra’s failure to warn it, Safeway, the grocery retailer that sold ground beef linked to a majority of Colorado’s reported 22 cases, has not accepted meat from ConAgra since the July 19, 2002 recall.
Recent reports indicate that ConAgra received 31 violations in the 13 months before its June and July 2002 ground beef recalls. At least 15 of these violations involved cattle feces, which carries the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. Food safety advocates say these violations are proof of the USDA’s failure to warn and protect consumers from unsafe food being manufactured in U.S. slaughterhouses. This has prompted activists to demand a reworking of the USDA’s E. coli O157:H7 testing processes, and an oversight hearing on the ConAgra outbreak itself.
Since the massive recall, federal officials have begun to look harder at both federal government and company practices. On September 13, 2002, a letter issued by the following congressional members, Representatives Mary Kaptur, Rosa DeLauro, Henry Waxman and Senator Richard Durbin, demanded to know why the USDA and ConAgra had failed to alert the public to possible contamination for more than two months after they knew there was contamination at the plant. Moreover, they intimated that ConAgra is hindering the on-going USDA investigation by refusing to turn over information about its Greeley slaughterhouses. Some of these same members of Congress have begun to ask if new laws are needed to govern the meat industry in order to protect public safety.
On November 15, 2002, the USDA shut down the ConAgra plant in Greeley (known as Swift and Co.), due to repeated failures to prevent fecal contamination of carcasses. Following the massive recall in July, the USDA required the plant operators to modify its HACCP plan to address the contamination problems. Even though the plan was put into effect and the plant was operating under the new guidelines, it repeatedly failed to meet the preventative measures required to avoid contamination. “The inspectors felt that the repetition of these violations was an indication that the preventative measures of the plant were either inadequate or ineffective,” stated Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA. The plant remains closed until operators decipher a way to address the contamination problem. Cohen stated it was not clear how soon the problems would be resolved, but the suspension would be lifted once the company institutes an adequate plan to ensure sanitary processing of its products.