Nova Scotia

Food recall awareness in Canada gets boost from technology

Modern technology is making it easier to hear about food recall notifications. In some cases, retailers will contact you directly thanks to how they track your purchasing history.

Loyalty and membership cards can help retailers contact people directly

Modern technology has helped make it much easier for government and retailers to notify people about food recalls. (Brooke Becker/Shutterstock)

While Silvia Corfu is used to getting emails about the points card she uses for grocery shopping, the message in a June email surprised her.

Rather than telling her about the purchases that would generate extra reward points that week, the email warned her about a food recall for some trail mix she had recently purchased from an Atlantic Superstore in Halifax.

The warning was triggered by her PC Plus points card, a loyalty card used by Loblaws.

Corfu says she was unaware of this feature of the card.

This is the recall notice Silvia Corfu received by email because of her PC Plus card. (Submitted by Silvia Corfu)

"I have a PC card for the points," she said.

She's thankful the tracking system notified her.

"How would it have worked if I did not have that points card? How would they have told me?" said Corfu.

In Canada, food recalls are co-ordinated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. While industry is responsible for removing a recalled product from the shelves and its distribution system, it's up to the agency "to inform the public, oversee implementation of the recall and verify that industry has removed recalled products from store shelves," the agency's website says.

Social media

The agency gets the word out about recalls by issuing notifications to the media and uses Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. The agency also has an email notification system people can sign up for and an app that alerts people to recalls and safety alerts.

This is a huge change from the days when it would just notify the media about recalls and didn't have social media and other modern forms of technology to help out.

Technology can also make life easier for retailers.

Automated phone calls

Ron Damiani, a spokesperson for Costco, remembers living in Montreal in the late 1990s when there was a hamburger recall because of E. coli.

While Costco has always had a membership system that allows it to track its members' purchases, notifying the customers of recalls required placing phone calls — lots of them.

"I remember it taking us two, three or four days to get a hold of all the members," said Damiani, noting the recall was just for Eastern Canada.

'We target these individuals'

Things have become much simpler. Once Costco learns about a recall, it applies the necessary filters in its computer systems to learn whom the recall applies to.

"We target these individuals directly by having automated phone calls to go to the individuals," said Marcelle Lavergne, the company's director of product safety and quality assurance.

Costco uses a third-party provider to make the automated calls and Damiani says tens of thousands of calls can be placed in an hour.

From the time of learning a recall is in place, it only takes a few hours for these calls to start.

CRTC regulations dictate when automated phone calls can be placed to people, so sometimes the calls won't go out until the following day, says Lavergne.

Privacy concerns

Sobeys uses Air Miles for its loyalty card program. The company that runs the program, LoyaltyOne, doesn't usually issue notifications about product recalls and leaves that up to the product manufacturers, spokesperson Kahina Haffad said in an email.

David Fraser, an internet and privacy lawyer with McInnes Cooper in Halifax, says it's important that companies who track customer information be forthright with them about how they are using that information.

Fraser, who has a PC Plus card, says he wasn't aware of the recall notification feature and didn't see mention of it in the terms and conditions.

Loblaws declined comment to CBC News.

'You'd be surprised'

"If you did not expect that Loblaws, through the use of the PC [Plus] card, was keeping track of exactly what you bought, then you'd be surprised to discover that," said Fraser.

On the flip side, he says people would likely be bothered if the company was aware of a recall and didn't notify people.

"It has to do with exactly what people expect and so the more that a company does to set those expectations, the less likely anybody is to be surprised or upset by what happens," said Fraser.