In July 2002, 17 Colorado residents were infected with E. coli O157:H7. Several reports of infections also came in from neighboring states. There had been an initial recall by ConAgra Beef Company in June, of 354,200 pounds of ground beef. The strain of E. coli matched that of the recalled beef.
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service expanded the ConAgra recall to 18.6 million pounds of ground beef, one of the largest meat recalls in US history.
In the weeks that followed, more than 45 people in 23 states reported illnesses linked to the contaminated ground beef.
It was found that USDA inspectors first knew of the E. coli contamination at the ConAgra plant in May, but had failed to issue a recall. Subsequent inspections throughout the next month also showed positive test results for E. coli, but a recall was not issued by ConAgra until June 30, 2002.
ConAgra admitted that it knew about the positive test results before the recall was issued, but had doubted the results of the tests. Reports indicate that ConAgra received 31 violations in the 13 months before its June and July 2002 ground beef recalls. At least 15 of those violations involved cattle feces, which carries the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.
After the 18.6 million pound recall, federal officials began taking a closer look at the USDA’s E.coli testing processes as well as company practices. In November 2002, the ConAgra plant in Greeley, Colorado, (the plant responsible for the outbreak) was shut down by the USDA.