August 28, 2014

Loyalty Cards Can Keep You Safer

Do you have a store loyalty card? These cards can generate discounts, let you automatically store and use coupons, and alert you to good buys in your favorite grocery store. But there’s another facet to these cards: they can help prevent food poisoning.

The cards were first introduced back in the 1980s. They aren’t just a way to reward loyal customers; loyalty cards also let a corporation track your shopping habits. While that may sound a bit like Big Brother, put aside your paranoia for a moment. Traceability and fast response are two critical parts of a recall. And the loyalty card remembers everything you bought at that store.

That last point is very important, because consumers don’t have perfect recall, especially when they are sick. Do you remember what you had for dinner last Friday? If another recall is issued for ground beef, can you remember if you bought some two months ago and stored it in your freezer?

For instance, the Hannaford ground beef contaminated with Salmonella Typhimurium was sold over a two-month time period. And consumers often store meat in the freezer for a year or longer. That ground beef is probably still in home freezers around the country.

Loyalty cards have been used to alert consumers and pinpoint sources for contaminated food in recent outbreaks and recalls:

Since the food you put in your shopping basket comes from many places around the globe, information about food sources and the farm-to-fork trail is key to ending an outbreak quickly. In the massive E. coli outbreak in Germany last summer that killed 55 people, fenugreek sprouts were the culprit.

But since people couldn’t remember exactly what they ate, epidemiologists focused on tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce before finally discovering the source. Employee billing cards helped solve the mystery, because a “satellite” outbreak at a corporation’s cafeteria was linked to sprouts from the same supplier.

The cards are also used to alert consumers to recalls. The store will call you if a product you purchased has become part of a recall. And information about recalled foods you have purchased is printed on your grocery receipt.

But what about privacy? Let’s be honest: no computerized record is completely safe from hackers. And there is a lot of information on those cards. Stores do pledge to keep the information secure. If you do become a victim of food poisoning and are interviewed, officials will ask permission to check your card.

And the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act can help protect your privacy. The law sets strict standards on protecting and guarding patient health information and expands administrative protections.

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