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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/14/2009 11:34:32 AM ET 2009-05-14T15:34:32

The food safety system in this country is outdated and inadequate and needs a major overhaul.

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We are constantly told the American food supply is the safest in the world . That may be true, but too many contaminated products still make it to market. In just the last two years, we’ve seen widespread bacterial contamination of spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, meat and nuts.

In 2008, the nation’s largest beef recall took place. This year, more than 3,000 products made with peanuts were pulled off the market in the largest food recall of any kind in U.S. history . The peanuts, contaminated with salmonella bacteria, sickened nearly 700 people in 44 states and caused nine deaths.

Giant recalls like this are headline news, but most food recalls get little or no coverage. Even when the recall is extensively reported, some people don’t get the word.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler sues food companies that sell tainted food. He points to the ConAgra recall of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter back in 2007. One in four people who got sick, Marler says, did so after the recall was issued. “Now unless you think they were trying to commit suicide, they simply didn’t know about the recall.”

The last line of defense
Stores are supposed to pull recalled products from their shelves. But that doesn’t always happen or happen quickly. Dean Florez, a California state senator and longtime advocate for better food safety regulations, says his staffers went looking and had no trouble finding recalled items still on store shelves.

Florez says our food safety system is in such disarray, he wants to see supermarket technology used to catch harmful and potentially deadly items before they leave the store. “This is the last line of defense,” he says.

He’s written a bill that would require all supermarkets in California with programmable checkout scanners to update their computer databases as soon as they receive a recall notice. Then if a recalled item is still on the shelf, the register would block the sale when it is scanned.

“It just makes sense given our technology today,” Florez says. “It means that when everything else fails, consumers would not walk out with something that could make them sick.”

The California Grocers Association says the technology does not exist to do what the bill requires: to identify specific lot numbers or “sell by” dates when a recall is issued. The grocers say the result will be lost sales and consumer confusion.

Florez tells me he is surprised by the industry push back, since some big retailers across the country — including Kroger, Costco and Wal-Mart — already do this with great success.

‘I do want you to know about it’
Two weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration recalled Hydroxycut, the top-selling weight loss supplement in America. The FDA warned the product was linked to one death and numerous cases of liver damage.

When Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for food safety at Costco, received the FDA recall notice, he locked the store’s computers. No more Hydroyxcut could be sold at any Costco in the country. Then he prepared a recorded message about the recall and had an automated phone system call every Costco member who had purchased the product. It took less than 10 minutes.

“If it’s any safety recall or safety issue, if you or your family is going to be at risk in any way, I want you to know about it,” Wilson says.

Some stores are doing more
Because Costco is a membership club, the company knows what customers buy and can quickly access that information to contact members who purchased something that’s been recalled. Wilson says if he gets a recall notice in the morning, he can usually reach about 70,000 people by early afternoon. Using this system, Costco can reach about 95 percent of the customers who bought a recalled item.

Jennifer Austin of Seattle says she appreciated it when Costco called to tell her the Cliff Bars she had purchased were part of the recent peanut recall. “I feel like this was a real service,” she says. “It’s rather impressive.”

Wegmans Food Markets, a 72-store chain with stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, calls its Shoppers Club members if a Wegmans brand item they purchased poses a health hazard.

“Customers have been very, very happy that we have taken this extra step to contact them,” says Wegman’s Jeanne Colleluori. “They find it reassuring that we care about what happens to them after they leave the store.”

Kroger does it a bit differently. In addition to an automated call, Kroger Plus card members who have purchased a recalled item get a message on the register tape the next time they shop at the store.

“There is no question customer notification can make a difference,” says attorney Marler. He’s convinced it reduced the number of people who got sick from contaminated peanuts and pistachio nuts.

Is this a privacy issue?
“I have mixed feelings about it,” says privacy advocate Pam Dixon, founder of worldprivacyforum.org. Dixon understands the reason stores would do this, but worries that it “opens the door for other uses.” In a perfect world, Dixon says, “people should be given the opportunity to say they want this kind of communication (or not) when they sign up for the card.”

Costco’s Wilson says during the 2007 peanut butter recall, the store called more than 2 million members to alert them to the potential safety hazard. Wilson says he got a lot of thank you calls, but no complaints. “I did not have one person say 'Don’t ever call me when something is going to jeopardize my health,' not one.”

Wegmans has signs at its service desks that explain the benefits of getting and using a Shoppers Club card, including calls about product recalls. Every time the store makes one of these calls, the customer is given a way to opt-out of the recall notification service in the future. Wegmans says the number of people who have opted out hovers around 1 percent.

My two cents
If you’re a retailer, you know a product you sold could be harmful and you have a way to contact the customers who bought that product, you’d be irresponsible not to let them know. Would you drive by a house that’s on fire and not try to wake the people inside because you’re afraid to invade their privacy? I hope not.

If you have a supermarket club card, find out if the store notifies customers about recalls. If not, and you like the idea of this service, let the store know. They benefit from collecting your shopping information; you should, too.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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