Jill Crowson bought ground beef on Dec. 22 at her local QFC supermarket in Bellevue, Wash., as she had countless times before. But she had no idea this time that it might endanger her family.
When Crowson went through the checkout line, she swiped her QFC Advantage Club card through the electronic card reader and it rang up discounts and recorded the details of everything she bought.
She cooked the ground beef on Christmas Day to make spaghetti for her husband, two children and a niece. A couple weeks later, she read in the newspaper that a cow had tested positive for mad cow disease and that 10,000 pounds of potentially tainted ground beef, distributed in Washington and seven other Western states, had been recalled Dec. 23.
"I was shocked and very concerned," says Crowson.
She asked a QFC meat department employee the next day if she should be worried. She says the employee assured her there was no chance the ground beef she bought was infected. She says she saw no recall notices at the store.
"I wasn't totally reassured," she says, "but at least I had some confidence" that her ground beef hadn't been recalled.
Then Crowson read about a Mercer Island, Wash., man who had demanded that QFC check his Advantage Card records to verify the safety of the meat he bought about the same time as her purchase. His had been recalled.
When Crowson asked QFC to check her purchase, she says, QFC required her to make the request in writing and come to the store's "loyalty office" for the records. Eventually, QFC confirmed her fears: The meat she bought was from the recalled batch.
"They had the ability to contact us and tell us about the recall before we had eaten it," says Crowson. "They didn't do what they could've done."
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has since announced there is "essentially zero risk" to consumers, Crowson points out the USDA previously said mad cow disease would never infect U.S. meat supplies.
Crowson is now suing QFC, claiming the grocery chain failed to use its customer loyalty card database to quickly alert customers who purchased the recalled meat.
"A product seller is negligent if he could have warned consumers about dangers of a product and failed to take measure to do so," says Crowson's lawyer, Nick Styrant-Browne, of the Seattle law firm Hagens Berman.
A Washington state court last month denied QFC's motion to dismiss the claim. Said a QFC spokesperson: "Because there is a pending lawsuit, we cannot make a comment."
Meanwhile, we asked area supermarkets how they would respond facing a similar potentially life-threatening recall:
* Giant Food: The chain has not sent any recall notices to its BonusCard members, says spokesman Jamie Miller. "We do have the ability to do that, and if there were a recall that warranted that, we would notify our BonusCard holders."
* Safeway: "Generally, when there is a recall of any kind, we have our own internal communication with stores to have them pull it off the shelves," says spokesman Craig Muckle. "If we have a reason to believe that the item may have been purchased, we normally do press releases."
* Harris Teeter: Besides sending out statements so "the media will relay the recall to the entire community," Harris Teeter can contact specific VIC member purchasers, says spokeswoman Jennifer Panetta. "We have used this capability in the past, and we do have a plan in place if we need to use it again in the future."
* Food Lion: Spokesman Jeff Lowrance says its MVP card program has always been "very conscious of privacy concerns of consumers" and, as a result, doesn't have the capability to contact them. "A person can get an MVP card with just a name, so it really hasn't been an avenue for us to communicate with customers," he says, adding that Food Lion is looking to increasing that capability, "probably using a broadcast e-mail."
* Super Fresh: Spokesman Bob Carson says any decision to contact customers would be made on a situational basis. "Certainly if there was a significant health risk to our consumers, we'd look at using that data to warn them."
* Sam's Club: "It has been policy since Day One to contact members individually if there is any possibility that a product could cause detriment to health or be life-threatening," says spokeswoman Jolanda Stewart.
* Costco: Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti says Costco contacts its club members about recalls. "Just recently, there was an almond recall. We actually sent over a million first-class letters to our members alerting them."
* Wegman's: The store has used "direct notification" maybe 15 times in the past five years, says Jo Natale, manager of consumer services. "We're one of the few chains in the country who use the data this way." Two weeks ago, Wegman's contacted Shoppers Club customers who had purchased Wegman's-brand baby oil in the previous 12 months. "It came to our attention that containers did not have a childproof cap and should have," says Natale. "We have had only positive feedback about this," she says. "Consumers have said to us this is a good use of the data."
Figuring she'll be concerned about mad cow disease for years, Jill Crowson agrees: "It is the responsible thing to do when a product has the potential for harming or killing them."
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to email@example.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.