In the past, you might have expected to have your Ford Pinto recalled, not your pinto beans. But several recent high-profile food recalls have left many concerned about the nation's food safety after numerous became ill and many died. At least one state senator and one very large grocery chain think a scanner-based recall system could ensure greater safety for consumers.
In February, California Sen. Dean Florez introduced a bill—SB 550—that would require any grocery store that uses a programmable checkout scanner to use it as a warning system. Scan, say, a recalled jar of peanut butter and the employee and customer are notified of a recall. Just as these systems are programmed to recognize price, they can be made to recognize possibly deadly products.
The Kroger Co., one of the nation's largest grocery retailers, has already implemented scanner-based recall notification. The Cincinnati-based retailer uses both customer loyalty cards and checkout scanners to notify customers who have, or who are about to purchase, recalled products. Loyalty cards store past purchase information which can be mined to warn of previously purchased tainted products. Testing on the recall-notification program began in spring 2008; with a full rollout commenced in the fall, according to the Business Courier of Cincinnati. Calls to Kroger for comment were not returned by press time.
Phil Lempert, editor of supermarketguru.com, said scanner-based recall-system hardware is easy to program and implement, and, with President Obama's administration focusing on "cleaning up" the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture, backing for such a system will increase.
"For all stores that have scanners and a frequent-shopper program, it's a 'must have' for the future," Lempert said. Even in the current economic climate, when "every capital expenditure for retailers is now under pressure," the benefits outweigh the costs, he said. "The benefit is simple: saving lives and building back consumer confidence in our food supply," he said. Although, he cautioned that while the system is technically foolproof it is still subject to human error. "Remember, it's a human being that has to enter the product recall information into the system based on the human that discovered the outbreak..."
But not everyone is convinced. Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for Washington, D.C.-based Natural Products Association, said there are dangers to pushing too hard, too fast for scanner-based systems. "You have to do quite a bit of metrics offline and get a hold of pertinent data that you can tie to a recall system," he said. Enforcing scanner-based recalls without spending the necessary time and resources to gather said data might mean beginning with a less-than-quality system. "And folks will become resentful of the system and cause the pendulum to swing back," he said. Also, costs might prove too prohibitive for smaller retailers to implement.
In the end, Fabricant said while systems are great and can make things easier, no system is foolproof and requires "not even a plan B, but a plan A2" to ensure customer safety—the old-fashioned media-notification system. "Yes, it's good to have additional data or follow up for those who don't get media coverage, but by and large we're pretty plugged in," he said. "If there's room for improvement, it's in the speed the recall information takes to reach the media."
Speed that for smaller retailers might be part and parcel of the daily reality of good retailing. "If you have an 800-square-foot store, do you want [a scanner-based system]? Probably not," he said. "I would bet the family that owns that store knows their customers pretty well and will tell them."