Just weeks after Salmonella Typhimurium was first linked to products that contain peanut butter produced by Peanut Corp. of America, the outbreak strain is already believed to have been deadlier than the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli, the 2006 Spinach E. coli and the 2007 ConAgra Salmonella outbreaks combined. As of last week more than 500 people had been infected, close to one-quarter hospitalized, and eight deaths appeared to be associated with the outbreak.
Although the death toll once again underscores the need for reform at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the number of consumers affected may have been minimized thanks to quick-thinking retailers who not only worked to remove items from their shelves, but from shoppers’ pantries too.
In fact, soon after alerting store managers of new items that had been added to the recall list, Barbara Collins, who manages recalls for Dorothy Lane Market, began mining shopper loyalty data and working the phone. Armed with a list of UPC codes, she was able to identify which Club DLM members had purchased relevant product during the months leading up to the recall.
Since lot numbers and sell-by dates aren’t always specified, Collins used her best judgment when deciding how far back to go.
When ConAgra’s Peter Pan peanut butter was recalled two years ago, DLM made calls to shoppers who’d purchased the peanut butter within the previous year, since peanut butter has such a long shelf life. Collins figured that Keebler and Austin Quality Foods Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers spend less time on the shelf, so DLM only took a look at two months’ worth of purchase data for these items.
During the more recent crisis, about 300 personal phone calls were placed to shoppers of the three-store chain, which has contact information for about 90% of its consumers through Club DLM.
Although callers were sometimes met with, “Oh, I’ve already eaten that, and maybe that explains why I was feeling sick,” shoppers almost always expressed gratitude, Collins said. Detailed records were kept about whether callers spoke to a live person, left a voice-mail message or had to send a letter via snail mail because the phone number was incorrect.
Because they’re working on a larger scale, Wegmans, Costco and ShopRite have less-personal automated systems in place, but they’re probably able to get the word out to loyalty cardholders almost immediately.
Wholesale clubs like Costco have another advantage. Since membership is required, contact information is available for all of its 54 million shoppers. A report indicated that automated calls were placed to about 1 million of Costco’s shoppers during one of the recall’s busiest weeks. Letters were also sent out to shoppers who had purchased recalled items since July 1, 2008.
The potentially life-saving strategies employed by retailers this month contrast starkly with the irresponsibility demonstrated by others.
Last week the FDA concluded that although PCA’s internal testing program had identified the presence of Salmonella 12 times in 2007 and 2008, the firm still cleared products for release after retests.