New efforts to keep consumer crops safe

Protecting crops: UA looks to stop food borne illnesses

TUCSON, AZ (CBS News) - Many consumers are still concerned about the safety of their produce after widespread e-coli outbreaks linked to lettuce last year.

As CBS News found out, researchers are looking for new ways to ensure the food you eat is safe.

John Boltes’ fields of romaine lettuce are read for harvest. During the winter, farmers in Yuma grow more than 80 percent of all the leafy greens consumed in America.

"And we're working to make sure that every single serving is safe," Boltes said.

However, many consumers have questioned the safety of lettuce after two e-coli outbreaks last year killed five and sickened more than 200 nationwide.

That led stores and restaurants to pull all romaine lettuce.

“Yeah and that could go on for some time,” Boltes said, when asked about the impact.

Scientists are looking for new ways to stop the spread of food borne illness.

“We’re out in a natural environment and always fighting against those possible incursions,” said Paul Brierley with the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture at the University of Arizona.

Brierley said while crops are tested for contaminants now, results may not be available until the product is already on store shelves. He and other researchers are working to change that.

They want to develop scanners that could be used on harvesters in the field.

The technology would immediately spot the smallest contamination and allow workers to pull the produce before it reaches the food supply.

"You'd know right away if there was something like e-coli or salmonella or something like that," Brierley said.

Scientist are also working with farmers to engineer a new breed of crops that would be resistant to disease and drought.

“The same lettuce that I cut here, out of this field, is the same I’m gonna take home and feed to my family,” Boltes said.

That’s why Boltes supports any new ideas that can prevent future outbreaks.