The growers banded together after the E. coli contamination to collaborate on industry guidelines, inspections, and joint marketing efforts earlier this year. Enrollment in the group, called the California Leafy Green Handler Agreement, has been extended until May 18, to allow as many growers as possible to get on board.
"There is a plan at some point to use a seal that would alert consumers, so that they'd know the produce they're purchasing has been handled properly," says a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Last summer's outbreak, which sickened 204 people and killed three, was linked to bags of spinach that had been contaminated by cattle feces, and the Food & Drug Administration found that all seemed to originate from a single grower, Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, Calif. Eventually, six companies recalled products.
And at Taco Bell last December, diners in four Northeastern states got sick with E. coli, believed to be linked to California lettuce.
The big players in bagged salads are Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita, which recently announced that its Fresh Express bagged salad division will spend $2 million on nine different research grants, to study how E. coli might spread.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released a report indicating that while the incidence of food-borne illness infections caused by E. coli and Salmonella in ground beef and eggs had declined in 2006, there was no decline in infections overall because of contaminations stemming from foods not previously associated with those illnesses, including spinach, tomatoes and peanut butter.
California produces about 75% of the nation's leafy greens, most of it spinach and lettuce.