Your Grocery Card--Health Care Guardian or Spy?

Shopping CartGrocery store cards got a lot of publicity recently as a result of an unexpected benefit  derived from them. For the first time ever, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  used information from the cards to identify the source of a salmonella outbreak.  After getting permission from salmonella victims to access the data on their cards, the CDC was able to find the salmonella source. It turned out to be the pepper that a Rhode Island company was using to season its salami.


Most supermarkets offer customers these cards equipped with a barcode or magnetic stripe.  The cashier swipes the card, and-- presto!--the prices on many items go down, and the customer saves money.  Not only that, but more savings print out in the form of coupons for future discounts, often on the same type of foods already purchased but different brands.  What could be bad about that?


About 85% of adults have at least one of these cards, and  76% of cardholders use one almost every time they shop.  Yet, 52% are concerned about revealing so much personal information. Some folks see a grocery card  as a thief robbing consumers of their privacy.


Supermarkets have been issuing these cards for more than a decade.  Stores use this information to develop marketing strategies such as what products to carry and what specific coupons to give customers. This is no secret; 7 out of 10 shoppers realize that grocery stores are keeping track of how much they spend and what they spend it on.


Although it can be a lifesaver to have this information when a food-borne illness outbreak occurs, some people worry that it pushes consumers further down the slippery slope of privacy invasion.  They fear how this source of information could be used in the future.   Would customers who buy a lot of alcoholic beverages want their  car insurance company to know that? What if a health insurance company didn’t approve of all the sweets in their overweight client’s grocery bag?   This may sound far-fetched  However, according to an article on,  some supermarkets “have sophisticated systems for matching publicly available information about consumer households with the data collected at the cash register, a practice that infuriates privacy advocacy groups.”


According to the CDC, finding the salmonella in the pepper would probably have been impossible if not for the grocery card records. Because the pathogen was in just one ingredient in a product, tracking it down would have been especially difficult. The victims of that  tainted pepper were not concerned about privacy and were eager for the CDC to check what they bought.  This outbreak affected about 245 people in 44 states.  The pathogen was detected by focusing on the purchases of 7 victims. Five of them had bought Italian meats made by Daniele International Inc.


Source(s): “Grocery Store Loyalty Card Use is Strong Despite Privacy Concerns


ExecutiveGov  “CDC Uses Grocery Cards to Trace Salmonella Outbreak”     


CNN TV news broadcast
March 12, 2010


Chicago Tribune, 3/18/10


Link(s): “Grocery Store Loyalty Card Use is Strong Despite Privacy Concerns”

I think that you probably already know that a supermaket has to obey the same rules as a rehab center when it comes to privacy. They can indeed collect data offered willingly by the client, but still, that doesn't give them the right to share that data with a third party like an insurance company.


You must be logged in to post a comment or question.

Sign In or Register for free.