California’s Salinas Valley — America’s salad bowl — is making a comeback as “the ultra center of safe food production” after going through a troubling E. coli outbreak five years ago that was traced to fresh bagged spinach.

The anniversary is being marked by a series of reports by the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting in partnership with news organizations in the state, including the San Jose Mercury News.

California’s leafy green industry has made significant strides, but is still working to gain the public’s trust after the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak spread across 26 states, infecting 206 people, sending 102 to hospitals, and resulting in three deaths. It would shake the faith many had put in Dole’s pre-washed bagged spinach.

The foundation report says that in the aftermath of the outbreak, Salinas Valley growers have “re-tooled nearly every step in their industry — from planting seedlings to harvesting and washing greens.”  The changes are the result of a pact on safe practices for growing leafy greens that’s now seen as a national model.

Change has not come easily.  Some growers quit and the value of Monterey County spinach crop has not yet returned to its 2005 value of $188.2 million. Last year, it reached $127.5 million.

The leafy green agreement means that growers of any one of 14 types of the produce must ensure that no cattle are grazing up stream, that wild pigs cannot roam free, and that crews must wear hairnets and gloves.

Big retailers — from Walmart to Costco — demand such assurances and will even send inspectors unannounced to monitor compliance with the leafy green agreement.  By adhering to the agreement, growers have not avoided recalls entirely, but there have been no big outbreaks and the area’s fresh produce has not been known to cause any illnesses since 2006.

For now, the 2007 leafy green agreement, which was drawn up by retailers who buy leafy green and the growers who grow them, is holding the line for food safety.