Retail loyalty cards to play pivotal role in notifying consumers of food recalls

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 6th February 2009

Besides potentially helping consumers save a little money on their grocery purchases, retail loyalty card programs can help supermarket chains assemble gigantic databases on the shopping preferences of their customers. The nonprofit consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is urging retailers that collect this kind of information to use it to notify consumers when they purchased items subject to a food safety recall.

Imminent Australian arrival Costco, which requires a membership, and Wegmans Food Markets and Price Chopper, which run bonus card programs, have all used their data to notify consumers who purchased recalled items in the wake of the American peanut butter recall. In fact, Costco made over 1.5 million automated phone calls and mailed even more letters to customers in the current recall alone. But most chains, including CVS, Food Lion and Safeway, that collect purchasing data do not notify their customers, the CSPI contends.

“Supermarkets enjoy using purchasing data for marketing purposes,” said CSPI staff attorney Sarah Klein. “We’re calling on supermarkets to also use that information to protect their customers’ health by alerting them to identify and return tainted foods. Several major chains are already doing that, and every other chain should do the same.”

In a letter to retailers that use bonus cards, CSPI said that the companies have a responsibility to assist their customers in returning contaminated foods. The current outbreak due to Salmonella-tainted peanut-butter products, which have killed eight and sickened well over 500 people, makes a compelling case for a bonus-card recall notification system, the group says. Peanut butter is an inexpensive ingredient used in thousands of products, and peanut butter’s long shelf life means many such products might linger on supermarket shelves and in kitchen cupboards for many weeks or months. The Food and Drug Administration’s list of recalled peanut products has grown to nearly 900.

“It would be outrageous if some of the deaths in this latest outbreak could have been prevented had a supermarket just used the phone numbers and addresses in its database to notify its customers,” Ms Klein said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million people are hospitalized each year due to foodborne illnesses and 5,000 die.

“It’s not enough just to take the tainted products off the supermarket shelf,” Ms Klein advised. “Wherever possible, supermarkets should reach out to their customers and help get contaminated food products out of their homes.”