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CSPI asks companies to notify shoppers of recalls

February 3, 2009 |  4:00 pm


If you are like many people, you've got several of those plastic cards in your wallet that give you discounts at supermarkets or pharmacies if you buy what's on sale.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest today asked companies to use the information they gather with those loyal customer or bonus club cards to notify shoppers if they bought any of the hundreds of products that have been recalled in the salmonella outbreak that has been traced to peanut products from a plant in Blakely, Ga.

Costco has already issued more than 1 million letters and automated calls, telling customers that its records showed they bought a recalled product. Craig Wilson, an assistant vice president at Costco, said such alerts are routine for the company, and they've heard from customers who appreciate them.

Ralphs also uses an automated call system for recalled products, said spokeswoman Kendra Doyel. Another way the supermarket company notifies shoppers of recalls is with a notice on receipts. The notice is printed twice, in case the shopper doesn't notice the first one, and it lists any recalled products the customer has bought, she said.

The current recall involves peanut butter and peanut paste, ingredients used in hundreds of products, and those products are popular and have a long shelf life, said Sarah Klein, a food safety lawyer at CSPI, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group.

Consumer confidence has been "sorely shaken," she said at a news conference today. Taking information that's often used for marketing to alert shoppers would help people get recalled products out of their homes, not just off store shelves, she said.

One Costco customer who got an automated call was T.J. Sullivan, a writer and blogger (who has been published in The Times). He said he bought some energy bars about five months ago for his car earthquake kit and didn't think about them when he heard about the recalls.

So he was grateful for Costco's calls. But he also said he has worried about all the information that's collected. What if, he said, Costco is someday owned by a healthcare provider who bases its premiums or coverage on the amount of alcohol or cheese or dairy he buys?

"I am concerned about how it could be misused one day, but in this instance it's a good thing," he said.

Klein said a few other companies have done as Costco has, but the members-only company's program is the most comprehensive. Wilson said the company has been writing letters to customers about recalls for a decade and began the automated calls about 18 months ago. Nineteen or 20 of the peanut-related recall products are sold in its stores, he said.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo: Rich Hartog / Los Angeles Times