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Health officials track food illnesses via warehouse club purchases

Jay MacDonald

My Costco TrueEarnings American Express card comes with all sorts of perks: 3 percent cash back on gas, 2 percent cash back on travel and dining, 1 percent cash back on everything else, even roadside assistance and travel insurance.Costco sign

But its biggest reward of all? One day, it may save my life. Or yours.

Now that’s priceless.

Local, state and federal health officials increasingly tap the stored purchase data of warehouse and supermarket membership accounts to track down outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. One day, your Costco, Sam’s Club, Kroger or Publix card, with its detailed description of exactly who bought what when and where, could give health officials just the head start they need to contain a fast-moving epidemic and save lives.

“The product, the flavor, the lot code, the ‘best by’ date: That is all tracked with these purchases,” Casey Barton Behravesh of the Centers for Disease Control’s outbreak and prevention branch told NBC News. “We are definitely supportive of the use of shopper cards during these outbreak investigations.”

Just last fall, health officials in Buffalo, N.Y., used the purchase data from the shopping card of a sickened resident to trace an outbreak of E. coli bacteria to packaged organic spinach sold by a small grocery chain across the continent in the Pacific Northwest. The vital link ultimately led investigators back to Chelsea, Mass., where the product originated.

Thirty-three people in five states fell ill from the bad greens. Without the card data, it could have been worse. Nationally, 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from food-borne illnesses.

“Shopper club cards are a good source of finding out what people ate,” says Oregon epidemiologist Bill Keene. But most stores provide that data only with a valid card number and the written consent of the cardholder.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, 60 percent of grocery stores offer shoppers cards, 80 percent of consumers have one and the average U.S. household participates in six shopping programs. Hilary Thesmar, who heads FMI’s food safety program, says its members do everything they can to help public health officials.

But not everyone approves. Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, says shopping card data in effect creates a “food registry” of what you consume that could one day be used against you, Big Brother style.

“Once the federal government is paying for your health, it becomes a public health issue what you put in your mouth,” she told NBC News. “Public health officials want to know exactly what’s on your shelf. Today it’s salmonella, but tomorrow it might be cholesterol, or ice cream.”

My take? I’ll worry about my “food registry” if I live through the next E. coli outbreak.

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  • Tara Lynn

    Well whatever makes us safer? I guess? This was a great article. I am glad that officials take ever precaution when it comes to our health. Although maybe it is not the case in every situation. I love the technique.