(Jan. 26) An outbreak of foodborne illness and a product recall, one might suspect, would send customers away from that item as if they were fleeing a powerful storm.

And, as in storm scenario, they might seem hesitant to return anytime soon.

But that apparently wasn’t the case, where sales of Dole packaged salads in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area are concerned.

Dole salad sales suffered only a temporary downward blip in the Twin Cities after a number of E. coli cases linked to certain lines of the product, according to data from two market research groups, the East Dundee, Ill.-based Perishables Group and Schaumburg, Ill.-based ACNielsen.

According to ACNielsen, sales of all brands of packaged salads in the Twin Cities slipped slightly throughout the fourth quarter.

Sales of Dole salads in a 13-week period from Sept. 3 to Nov. 26 were off an average of 19.6% from the previous year, according to the Perishables Group, which specified that their statistics were units moved and not dollar figures. They had slipped 27.5% the week ending Sept. 24 — more than a week before a Food and Drug Administration alert — and down 17.2% on Oct. 1, the day before the FDA alert went out.

Sales slipped dramatically in October, after the alert went out — down 22.3% from the previous year for the week ending Oct. 8; 29.1% Oct. 15 and 27.6% Oct. 29.

On Oct. 2, three lines of Dole salads, all bearing expiration dates and production codes beginning with B250, were linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

The salad products involved were Classic Romaine and American Blend, each with a best-if-used-by date of Sept. 23; and Greener Selection, with a best-if-used-by date of Sept. 22.

The FDA issued an alert on the salads Oct. 2. According to a statement from Roundy’s Inc., a Milwaukee-based chain that operates Rainbow Foods stores in the Twin Cities, product was pulled immediately when the Minnesota Department of Health notified the company that 11 people had reported illnesses after eating Dole salads purchased at some Rainbow stores.

In the immediate aftermath of the alert, there were 17 cases of illness and eight hospitalizations attributed to E. coli O157:H7 in Minnesota, according to the FDA.

The agency said no other Dole products were involved and that Dole had issued a recall for the products linked to the problem.

Eric Schwartz, president of Salinas, Calif.-based Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc., said product linked to the problem was bought at Rainbow Foods stores in Minnesota.

Whatever the cause of the sales slippages — other than those that occurred in the immediate wake of the FDA report — it likely wasn’t related to any E. coli problems, Schwartz said.

In fact, he said, outside the Twin Cities, there were few ill effects on sales.

“Actually on a national basis, we did not see a dip at all,” he said. “Up in the Minnesota region, it did get a little soft, but it got back on its feet pretty quick.”

Sales of Dole salads in the Twin Cities appeared to rebound, somewhat, in November, although they were still down from 2004 figures. They were off by 17.6% the week ending Nov. 5 and 15.7% Nov. 12.

Sales were down 28.7% Nov. 19, but Schwartz theorized that Thanksgiving played as much a role in that figure as any other factor.

The following week, sales were down only 11.5% from the previous year.