Feb. 3, 2009— -- To better protect shoppers from a spreading salmonella outbreak, a consumer advocacy group has today asked grocery stores to use their customer loyalty programs to contact customers who have purchased recalled products.
With the number of recalled products containing peanut butter continuing to climb, Sarah Klein, a food safety lawyer for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said consumers now have to go on a "wild goose chase" through the Food and Drug Administration's Web site to see if a product has been recalled. The Food and Drug Administration's list of recalled products is 120 pages long.
"We think there has to be a better way," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Grocery and pharmacy chains routinely collect data from consumers, including phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and they purchase histories for loyalty or bonus card programs. Some of that data is generally used for marketing research.
"Consumers need more than coupons from costumer loyalty programs," Klein said.
Warehouse retailer Costco recently made more than 1.5 million automated phone calls to consumers who purchased recalled products. Klein said two other chains, Wegmans Food Markets and Price Chopper, have also made efforts to contact consumers.
There are heightened concerns this week about food safety as more details about the peanut recall emerge. A report obtained by The Associated Press revealed Tuesday that a Texas plant also run by the company at the heart of the salmonella outbreak was up and running for years without being licensed or inspected by the FDA. Also this week, a former employee at the Peanut Corp. of America plant linked to the outbreak told CBS News that he saw a rat "dry roasting in the peanuts" and said roaches were a constant problem.
The FDA said for the first time last Friday that some peanut butter on store shelves may not be safe to eat. Health officials repeated assurances that major national brands were considered safe, but said some boutique brands may be suspect.
Hundreds of products have been removed from the supply chain in one of the largest recalls ever, including such products as peanut butter-flavored cookies, candies, cereals, crackers, ice cream and dog biscuits.
Last week, the FDA announced 28 new cases of salmonella-related illness diagnosed since Jan. 19. More than 500 people have become ill, and eight have died in cases believed to be linked to bad peanut butter.
Lawmakers to Examine Salmonella Outbreak
Senators on Capitol Hill will take a closer look at the outbreak Thursday in the first hearing focused on the peanut butter recall. Lawmakers will hear from families who have been sickened by salmonella as well as from government officials from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A House panel will also examine the issue next week.
The peanut recall was recently elevated to a new level of urgency. On Jan. 30, the federal government announced it had launched a criminal investigation into the Peanut Corp. of America's Blakely, Ga., processing plant, which has been linked to the national salmonella outbreak.
Also last week, a report surfaced that revealed a peanut shipment from the plant linked to salmonella was denied entry into Canada even before the health scare began. The FDA said it wasn't until that shipment was rejected that the FDA knew this plant was in the peanut butter business.
Another FDA inspection report revealed that the plant found some type of salmonella in its products 12 times over the last year and a half. It also documented unsanitary conditions at the plant, including cockroaches, mold and leaking roofs.
"Our top priority has been -- and will continue to be -- to ensure the public safety and to work promptly to remove all potentially contaminated products out of the marketplace," Peanut Corp. of America said in a Friday statement. "To that end, we have issued extensive recalls that broadly encompass potentially contaminated product."
President Obama has not yet announced his pick for FDA commissioner, though White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week the selection was coming in the next few days. That person will oversee an agency that Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., recently told ABC News is in desperate need of money, personnel and authority to strengthen the nation's food safety system.
"Until Congress acts, until this administration undoes some of the doings of the prior administration, I think you can look forward to more scandals of this kind," Dingell said.
"We do not routinely look at returned goods for every possible microbe, agent, chemical problem that could be in there," FDA food safety director David Acheson told ABC News. "There's just hundreds. It would be very resource-intensive and time-intensive."
To make sure shoppers don't get sick, health officials have posted several resources online, including updates on recalled products listed by the FDA and updates on illnesses, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The American Peanut Council has also posted a list of companies that say their products are safe to eat.
ABC News' Brian Hartman and the Associated Press contributed to this report.