(Feb. 12) Acting on advice from the Food and Drug Administration in September, consumers immediately stopped buying spinach, but a recent survey shows shoppers were confused about where the E. coli spinach came from and when the agency’s warning expired.

William Hallman, lead researcher of the New Brunswick, N.J.-based Rutgers Food Policy Institute survey said that whether people ate spinach before the recall or not, 18% of them said they had thrown away other bagged produce.

“Also, about half the people we talked to said they washed their food a lot more thoroughly because of the recall,” he said. “What this suggests is that even people who were potentially not affected by the recall and didn’t eat spinach were, in fact, affected because it made them think that the safety of other food products might be in question.”

Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said the survey, released Feb. 5, is valuable in tracking the fallout after a recall.

“The FDA has an extremely critical role in these kinds of situations because they and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) are the most credible sources of information,” he said. “As such, they should make certain that their communications and information are as professional as possible.”

The survey (which can be found at http://foodpolicyinstitute.org/) concluded that 84% of those who heard about the FDA warning talked to others about it, and that a majority of consumers stopped eating spinach.

“(The FDA) was less successful in getting out some of the details, for example, which kinds of spinach products were at risk,” said Hallman, noting that canned and frozen spinach sales dropped off, too.

Spinach sales continued to lag during the survey, two months after the initial E. coli outbreak in September, Hallman said, although 45% of survey respondents had returned to eating spinach by then. What he found particularly interesting about the recall was that he had never heard of any other product being universally condemned.

Another 45% said they would eventually go back to eating spinach but that they would wait, on average, two months before doing so.

“It didn’t matter where it was from in the early days of the advisory,” he said. “Most recalls are focused on the products from one processor, one farm, one lot number, or some area of distribution.”

“Rutgers’ numbers are from November, and that’s what is not being reported,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. “What is being reported is as if this (survey) just happened. These attitudes are from November. We don’t know that’s how consumers feel now.”