(Feb. 12) By sharing its findings with the industry, Fresh Express would take the high road in its upcoming E. coli research.

In January, the company announced plans to spend up to $2 million to fund an investigation into the causes and prevention of the potentially lethal E. coli O157:H7 pathogen that contaminated fresh spinach and leafy greens in recent months.

The Salinas, Calif.-based company, a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International Inc., wasn’t identified in any of the recent food safety scares involving fresh produce. However, Fresh Express’ bagged-salad sales dropped 20% to 30% in the three-month period that followed the outbreak, said Fresh Express president Tanios Viviani.

The Produce Marketing Association also has pledged money to support food safety efforts — it pledged $2.75 million, which is up from the $1 million it pledged at Fresh Summit in October.

Fresh Express made news last fall when it was featured in a USA Today story that highlighted its leadership in food safety. The story, headlined “’Fresh Express leads the pack’ in produce safety,” even arrived on the hotel room doorsteps of Fresh Summit attendees on Oct. 23 in San Diego.

The company ran the risk of implicitly branding all other fresh-cut companies less safe when it became labeled as safest, which is something ultimately damaging to the produce industry.

Consumer confidence in spinach and other vegetables is still shaky, according to a recently released Rutgers University study, and with congressional hearings on food safety coming up, produce companies shouldn’t question their peers’ safety efforts without overwhelming evidence.

But in sharing its research on E. coli, Fresh Express would show it has the industry’s — and consumers’ — best interests in mind.

As Viviani said, everyone has a stake in the project’s outcome.