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A Life Saver

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Stop griping about that supermarket shopper tag hanging on your key ring; it could save your life!

According to NBC News, more local health departments -- in tandem with state and federal investigations -- are tapping the detailed information about what shoppers purchased to track down outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. Relying on people’s memories is considered fallible; by delving into the data amassed via shopper cards, officials are able to get products off the shelf as quickly as possible and alert the public about the items in question.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates some 48 million Americans get foodborne illnesses annually; 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from their illnesses. Officials with the CDC claim that using shopper cards and tags to identify exactly which products were purchased by victims of food poisoning has become a standard tool for public health investigators.

“The product, the flavor, the lot code, the best buy date: That is all tracked,” says Casey Barton Behravesh, deputy chief of the CDC’s outbreak and prevention branch of the division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases. Echoing her sentiments is Bill Keene of the Oregon Public Health Division, who describes store cards/tags as a rich trove for epidemiologists who are often trying to track down suspect food a month or so after it was consumed because of the lag between when an illness strikes and when it gets reported.

Costco is identified as a retail frontrunner in the use of shopper cards to notify consumers about food and other product recalls. The warehouse club began notifications in the late 1990s. Today Craig Wilson, company vice president for food safety and quality assurance, says the retailer is called on by public health officials at every level several times a week.