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What Your Grocer Knows

From today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Late Monday afternoon, employees at O’Hara grocer Giant Eagle Inc. got test results showing some hash brown products sold by the retailer contained a bacterium that can cause a potentially serious infection.

Within hours, an automated system was busy calling more than 300,000 Giant Eagle Advantage Card holders who records showed had purchased the affected product. “We wanted to get the information out as soon as we knew about it,” said Michael Sealy, vice president of risk management services.

It was the first large-scale use of the grocer’s automated notification system. So far, so good. Officials said many customers have thanked the company for the calls.

Loyalty cards issued by grocers and other retailers have had their critics over the years, as some people worry about how much data the companies gather and others complain they shouldn’t have to give up personal information in exchange for supermarket discounts.

But the growing practice of using that data to publicize recalls has generally been well received, even as it serves as a reminder that a company knows about your secret love of beef jerky, Twizzlers, fresh spinach or hash browns.

Warehouse club operator Costco first used its automated phone notification system in November 2007, when a toy with a coating that could make children who swallowed it to “become comatose, develop respiratory depression or have seizures” was recalled.

For years, Costco had been mailing notices to members who’d bought recalled products, said Craig Wilson, assistant vice president of food quality and quality assurance. But the late 2007 case was the first time Costco’s computer systems were set up for the robocall notification. The system can make 870,000 calls an hour.

News reports since have cited other chains, such as Wegmans, Price Chopper and Kroger, as implementing similar systems. In February 2009, when tainted peanut butter was making people sick, the Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote an open letter urging retailers to get on board.