Local health departments, as well as state and federal health investigators, have discovered a new way to track down outbreaks of food borne illnesses.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report shopper cards are now being used to track down outbreaks of food poisoning and other food borne illnesses. The cards give detailed information - the product, the flavor, the lot code, the best by date - of all products that enter a consumer's shopping cart.
The CDC states identifying exactly which products were purchased by victims of food poisoning has become a standard tool for public health investigators, and the agency supports the use of shopper cards during outbreak investigations.
According to the CDC, an estimated 48 million Americans contract food borne illnesses every years, with 128,000 needing hospitalization, and 3,000 dying.
An article in NBCNews.com cites an example of two women in the same household who were struck with gastrointestinal symptoms. The younger woman had been sick for nine days when her mother-in-law became ill with the same symptoms. Unfortunately, the older woman's symptoms were so severe she required hospitalization. Both women had contracted E.coli from contaminated organic spinach and spring mix salad greens.
Health department officials were able to, with the women's shopper card numbers, discover exactly where the contaminated greens were sold and grown, and have the contaminated product pulled from grocery store's shelves.
Experts state that identifying the source of an outbreak early and accurately can not only result in the contaminated product being pulled from store's shelves more quickly, but can assist doctors in prescribing the proper treatment for victims, as well.
According to a report by the Food Marketing Institute, approximately sixty percent of retail grocery stores offer shopper cards and approximately eighty percent of consumers in this country belong to a shopper loyalty card program, with the average household participating in six shopper programs.