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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, April/May 2012

Loyalty Card Data Still Underutilized for Ensuring Food Safety

by Gina Shaw

Costco’s Craig Wilson still recalls the Salmonella outbreak in almonds in 2004. “It started in Oregon, and ultimately it moved to almost every state,” he said. More than 30 cases in 12 states and one Canadian province were linked to the same Salmonella isolate.

Epidemiologists tracking the five initial cases of Salmonella in the outbreak had determined that all had made purchases at Costco warehouse stores. “They came to us and said, ‘It looks like the source of the pathogen could have been raw almonds, or a couple of other different items. Could you let us know who bought what and when they bought it?’” recalled Wilson, Costco’s food safety director. “The members had given them their Costco membership numbers, so we were able to use those to track their purchases and nail down the organism.”

On May 18, 2004, Paramount announced a nationwide recall of all raw almonds sold under the Kirkland Signature, Trader Joe’s, and Sunkist labels. Costco mailed 1,107,552 letters to members who had purchased the recalled almonds. “This all led to the new almond pasteurization law,” Wilson said. “We figured out what the problem was and worked with the California Almond Board and almond growers in a process that kind of reshaped the almond industry.”

That was nearly eight years ago, but even then, using member purchasing information to contribute to epidemiological investigations of foodborne illness outbreaks and alert consumers about recalls of foods that they had specifically purchased was nothing new at Costco.

“We’ve been doing this for at least a dozen years,” Wilson said. “It makes perfect sense. When you’re an epidemiologist and you’ve got an outbreak of illness and you talk to 20 people and they all think they ate the walnuts, the ground beef, the tangerines, the bagged salad, and they all shopped at different places, what do you do? Often, state epidemiologists will call us and say, ‘We have an outbreak of X illness in this area, and we think we have it narrowed down to these five food items with these five people, and three of them are Costco members. Here are their numbers—can you see what they purchased?’ Of course we’ll do that, always with our members’ permission. It’s worked just great. We’ve cracked some really big cases.”

A nationwide recall of raw almonds in 2004 led to the new almond pasteurization law — thanks in large part to Costco’s use of member information to track the outbreak and identify the organism responsible.

A November 2011 article in USA Today highlighted the utility of shopper loyalty cards in tracing foodborne illness outbreaks—but it’s worth noting that most of the cases described in the USA Today article involved Costco-facilitated investigations, including a 2010 outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in raw milk Gouda cheese and the notorious 2009 Salmonella Montevideo outbreak ultimately traced to black and red pepper used to coat sausages. USA Today also cited Wegman’s as helping out in one other case it described, and Kroger is also known for utilizing its shopper loyalty card data to facilitate outbreak investigations.

But beyond Costco—which is a membership store, so everyone has a card—and a few others like Kroger and Wegman’s, it doesn’t seem that grocery store chains have broadly taken up the use of these ubiquitous little plastic cards to help find out what may have made some of their customers sick, or to keep them from getting sick in the first place.

Several grocery chains contacted by Food Quality magazine declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson for SuperValu said that he could not comment because the national chain, which has more than 4,000 stores under a dozen names in almost every state, was “in the early stages of implementation” of a plan to leverage loyalty card data for foodborne illness outbreak investigation.

“We’re looking into using loyalty card data for this purpose, but we’re not currently doing it at this time,” said Marcy Connor, a spokesperson for the East Coast supermarket chain A&P, which operates more than 100 stores in New York and New Jersey.

Several other major chains did not respond to inquiries; Safeway directed questions to the Food Marketing Institute.

“Industry data suggest that just over half of FMI members have a loyalty card program for their frequent shoppers,” said Hillary Thesmar, PhD, vice president of FMI’s food safety programs. But she did not report any polling or surveys on the specific use of loyalty card programs to facilitate epidemiological investigations of foodborne illness, or to alert customers to recalls of food they have previously purchased.

“Loyalty card programs vary from store to store and depend on the varying privacy agreements between retailer and customer. There are no standard agreements for these programs, and each retailer determines the purpose and scope of their loyalty card program, if they choose to have one,” Dr. Thesmar said. “FMI members use a variety of communication tools to alert their customers in the case of a recall. This varies by retailer and by customer base. Retailers know their customers and know how to communicate with their customers, and that is why a variety of communication tools are utilized by the industry.”

Dr. Thesmar pointed to certain challenges that might make it more difficult for some stores to use their loyalty cards for epidemiological purposes. “Customers often have the option to ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’ of receiving information from retailers,” she noted. “The current information technology infrastructure is another challenge, and accuracy of data on customers is another.”

Costco, of course, has a huge advantage over most other stores in its participation in foodborne illness outbreak investigations: Every Costco shopper has a membership card. You’re not permitted to enter their warehouse stores without one. Most other grocery chains, however, only offer them to the consumer, with the promise of regular discounts, coupons, and other enticements. Many people do use them—a 2004 survey from Boston University found that 86% of adults carried at least one grocery loyalty card, and 76% of those used it almost every time they shopped. Still, the overall penetration may not be sufficient for the cards to be as useful a tool as they could be.

Some consumers—and some retailers—may worry about privacy issues when loyalty cards are used in this way, but in actual practice, that hasn’t presented an issue so far, said Doug Powell, PhD, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan. “When they’ve been used to date, epidemiologists have been very careful to make sure they get full buy-in and clear any ethical and privacy concerns with the customers as well as the stores.”

In addition to facilitating investigations, Costco has set an industry standard for recall notifications. Wilson said that the company can generate between 1.3 million and 1.4 million phone calls an hour when notified of a Class 1 recall; the company then follows up with a letter that has “Recall Notice” clearly printed on the envelope so customers don’t toss it as junk mail. “We take this very seriously. If there’s a recall out there, you’re going to get a phone call and a letter from Costco,” Wilson said.

Dr. Powell would like to see more stores use their loyalty cards for food safety purposes. “When it comes to food, there’s all kinds of technology and creativity and marketing that’s put into making us mere mortals buy all sorts of weird things, so it’s nice to see the same technology being used to actually make us safer.”

Shaw writes Food Quality’s online news.

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