Farmers Work To Make Produce Safer

In California's Salinas Valley, the new focus on food safety can have farm workers looking like hospital workers. Their dress is almost surgical, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports, and their tools are treated with disinfectant.

It's all just part of what has become common practice on the fields where farmer Rod Braga grows broccoli, spinach and lettuce.

"We're always open to the safest way we can do stuff. Obviously, we want to make sure the food supply is safe — that's the most important thing," says Braga. While Braga's crops were not contaminated by E. coli, last year's food scare cost his ranch about $800,000. So like every other grower, he faces the challenge of convincing consumers that vegetables won't hurt them.

"Is this really safe for me to eat? I mean, yeah, I think about it all the time," says Felicia Betancourt, a shopper.

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"Even with all the news coverage over the E. coli, you never really knew how it happened," remarks Janette Sperber, another shopper.

When spinach was pulled off the shelves last fall, tracing the contamination that killed three people and sickened more than 200 was frustratingly slow. Even now, the exact source is uncertain.

To trace contamination faster when it occurs and to more quickly stop the spread of disease, California growers are stepping up recordkeeping and inspections. Still, some critics worry these voluntary measures aren't enough.

"We can't put a fence around every single field, and we're not growing it in a greenhouse. But we are testing soil, testing water, testing seed, testing every single input that we put in it," says Braga.

While farmers and government regulators are looking for ways to make things safer in the fields, consumers may have part of the answer much closer to home.

Food safety expert Christine Bruhn advises carefully washing every single leaf of unbagged lettuce and spinach under running water.

"We rub it in to help dislodge any bacteria that might be sitting there that we don't see with our eyes," says Bruhn, of the University of California, Davis.

But she says bagged greens are triple-washed and can't be made any cleaner.

"Take the scissors, clip it open and dump it right onto your plate," she says.

Sometimes, however, even triple washing doesn't get all the bacteria, as last year's E. coli outbreak revealed. Experiments are now under way using radiation to treat produce. Scientists say the radiation kills bacteria, but critics worry that it may affect taste and nutrition.

In California, farmers are following new guidelines that detail when and how they should check everything from irrigation water to compost to dust blowing in from nearby fields.

"Obviously, as a grower, we're willing to go as far as we have to go, and we'll do whatever it takes," says Braga.

After all, growers say, no one has a bigger stake in food safety than those whose livelihood depends on consumer confidence.

The series "Safe Enough to Eat?" continues Thursday on The Early Show, with a report on whether food served in school cafeterias makes the grade.

For resources on keeping produce safe, you can go to The Center For Food Safety.