CHAMPAIGN, Ill. ï¿½" The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a new tool in its disease-fighting arsenal: frequent-shopper cards, USA Today reports. The CDC used loyalty cards to trace the source of a recent salmonella outbreak that made hundreds of people across the nation sick.
The cards provided the information the agency used to eventually uncover the culprit: a pepper used to season the product. This was the first time the CDC had successfully used supermarket frequent-shopper data to find the source of a foodborne illness.
"It was really exciting. It was a break in the investigation for sure," said CDC epidemiologist Casey Barton Behravesh.
The salmonella outbreak sickened approximately 245 people in nearly every state. Last summer, the first case linked to this salmonella outbreak was reported and by November, the agency was investigating clusters of cases in several states.
Narrowing down the possibilities through interviews and data gathered from the victims, the CDC thought an Italian meat was the source but no one could recall the exact brand, said Behravesh. With the victimsï¿½ï¿½ permission, frequent-shopper card data was mined for Italian meat purchases and the additional information helped to identify the companies from which the contaminated products came.
While the CDC did not reveal how many victims gave the agency access to their frequent-shopper accounts, Behravesh said that most were amenable to providing the data. "Most of the time when a person gets really sick with a food-borne pathogen, theyï¿½ï¿½re very happy to talk with us and try to help out with the investigation," she said.
Along with the CDC, a few state and local health departments have traced other foodborne illnesses with shopper cards, but this was the first time the agency had success using the data. More stores are using loyalty cards to alert customers to product recalls.