Though consumer demand for spinach fell sharply after the 2006 E. coli outbreak, a new U.S. Department of Agriculture study has found consumers turned to other leafy greens during the recall.

The study released in the March issue of USDA’s Amber Waves, also found the long-term drop in retail purchases of fresh spinach products was matched by purchases of other leafy green products, which did not change.
Consumers, the study states, “did not panic about other vegetables” by shifting their buying habits to other leafy greens since the outbreak. In September 2006, the Food and Drug Administration warned the public to not eat any fresh spinach because of possible contamination with E. coli O157:H7.
“We had no idea when people left spinach where they would go,” said Carlos Arnade, a USDA agricultural economist and one of the report’s authors.
According to the report, consumers “slightly reduced” total leafy green purchases in favor of other vegetables but returned to their previous level of leafy green purchases 16 weeks after the outbreak.
Purchases on all commodity groups in the report, with the exception of bagged salads without spinach, showed “substantial immediate response” after the announcement.
Purchases of bagged spinach fell 63% by the third week after the FDA advisory and continued to fall by another 17% 26 weeks later.
Purchases of bulk spinach fell 32% the first week of the outbreak but rebounded 15% 68 weeks after the outbreak.
Researchers attribute the difference to the fact that the tainted spinach in the recall was bagged not bulk spinach. Purchases of other leafy greens like iceberg and romaine also performed well after the outbreak with sales 13% to 20% higher in the first week following the outbreak.
Researchers based their findings on retail market scanner data collected between 2004 and 2007. Scanner data used was from 140 weeks before the spinach outbreak and 68 weeks after, including the week of FDA’s announcement, and excludes Wal-Mart and Costco.
Other findings include: 

  • Purchases of bagged spinach fell to $201 million in the first 68 weeks after the FDA announcement, 20% below where purchases would be without the recall.
  • Purchases for bagged salads without spinach increased 2%, to $63 million, the first 13 weeks of the outbreak.

  Linda Calvin, another author of the report and USDA agricultural economist, said they are looking into writing a similar report for chili peppers and tomatoes, to see how consumers reacted after food safety recalls involving both those produce items.