Store loyalty and bonus cards can be a lifesaver, and I'm not talking about the great deals. Costco, Wegmans, and Price Chopper are calling and warning millions of customers who bought peanut products that may be contaminated with the deadly salmonella strain, telling them to destroy the suspect food.
This effort underscores the big problem in what may be the world's largest food recall ever—finding people who may have bought hundreds of potentially dangerous foods, from Keebler cookies to Walgreens candy. The Food and Drug Administration has added dozens more foods to the hundreds on its "potentially deadly" list in just the past two days. No way any mortal human can keep up with that, particularly since the list could include foods made as long ago as Jan. 1, 2007.
Thus the retailers' effort to give customers a heads-up. Costco's robocall says: "This is a Costco food safety alert"; it then names specific products and tells the listener to destroy them. The company has called more than 1.5 million customers in the past few weeks and has mailed notices to millions more. Sarah Klein, a staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group, praised the retailers and urged other chains with loyalty programs to do the same. "Only retailers know who purchased a product," she said today.
What are the odds of having contaminated peanut stuff in your home? To figure that out, I contacted people in the peanut industry. They said that the Peanut Corp. of America probably processed about 30 million pounds of raw shelled peanuts in a year in the Blakely, Ga., facility that has been pinpointed as the source of the outbreak. The United States uses about 1.9 billion pounds of peanuts in products each year. So the peanuts that went through the contaminated plant represent about 1.6 percent of the peanuts processed in the United States.
That means that the vast majority of peanut products in the United States should be safe. But it's still too hard for us peanut-product eaters to find out whether the stuff in our kitchen cupboards is in the safe 98 percent or the unlucky 1.9 percent. Despite the decent odds, playing peanut roulette is not a gamble I want to take. Goodbye, yummy granola bars.
CDC experts say this confusing, complicated situation may well become typical for food-contamination outbreaks in this century, given our reliance on processed foods made out of ingredients from around the globe. The bacteria police face three big challenges in combating them:
- It's hard to identify the source of an outbreak when lots of different types of food are contaminated.
- It's hard to recall lots of different food products quickly.
- It's hard for people to get fast, easy access to the information they need to avoid tainted food.
President Barack Obama said yesterday he was distressed by the federal government's inability to detect and stop outbreaks more quickly, adding that his 7-year-old daughter, Sasha, eats peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. (Good news there, Mr. President: Jarred peanut butter is not implicated.) I'd add my vote to that, and I suspect most other parents would, too.