Loyalty programs are a regular part of our consumer-driven lives. The concept began almost 250 years ago in the United States with store-specific coupons. In Canada, the practice was adopted in 1958 by the Canadian Tire Corporation with Canadian Tire Money. Today, almost every store offers some type of initiative -- and accompanying plastic card -- to keep the consumer dedicated to make return visits.
The draw of these programs is simplistic: you save money on future purchases. Depending on the number of companies you frequent, they may make up the majority of plastic in your wallets and purses. This has led to significant research into the development of a program and what might be the best format for rewards to keep customers coming. As a result, these programs do far more; they track your purchases, offer personalized coupons and even suggest ways to improve your life.
Now, there is another benefit stemming from being part of a corporate-consumer community: improved public health. The revelation came last week when a group of Canadian researchers published their experiences in tracking down a foodborne outbreak in British Columbia. In 2012, an outbreak of hepatitis A virus (HAV) occurred in the province leaving public health officials unsure of the source and how to find those who might have been exposed or infected. In addition to traditional gumshoe-styled detective work, termed epidemiology, these inventive investigators found a new lead that eventually led them to the answers they needed.
The team initially conducted interviews with the infected to determine if there were any common events in their history. Because the virus has primarily stemmed from foodborne sources in Canada, such as onions, tomatoes, lettuce, shellfish, and a number of berries, there was a small list of potential options: restaurants, food service environments or grocery stores. The latter turned out to be the case. But then another problem arose. What same item did the patients all purchase with the potential to cause illness? For most of us, remembering that type of information can be difficult at best. However, as the team found out, there was another repository of such information: the loyalty program.
With permission given, the group accessed the purchase history of the infected individuals and found they all purchased and consumed a frozen fruit blend. This was both a blessing and a curse. While they had found the likely source, it was also a highly popular item with some 56,000 units sold in the previous few months. This meant up to 8 million people may have been exposed to the virus with an unknown number infected.
Knowing the source of the virus, the team sent out an advisory to the general public concerning the risk of consuming the berries and hoped they would not be dealing with a large-scale problem. Thankfully, only a few more cases appeared; they too had come into contact with the contaminated culprit.
But there was one more surprise for the team. Amidst the cases -- 9 in all -- there were three who had no history of purchasing or eating the berries. When the HAV virus was analyzed, it was a different strain. These individuals, while still infected, were not actually part of the outbreak; they were infected through other means.
Eventually, the outbreak was controlled, the manufacturer investigated and from the public's perspective, the issue faded away. Yet, for the BC detectives, there was much discussion to be had about the benefits of loyalty programs to any outbreak case. The time required to find the source was quickly reduced thanks to tracking. The ability to warn people who might be at risk could be greatly aided with individualized messages to those who bought the suspect product. Although a public health advisory was issued, it could be more focused on a certain population without needlessly worrying everyone.
Perhaps most importantly, those infected but not by the same source could be identified and either excluded from the investigation or, if the numbers are high enough, initiate another.
For some, the idea of using a loyalty program to hunt down a virus may seem improper or even an invasion of privacy; yet there are already mechanisms in place using other lists. Passenger manifests have been used to identify people who may have been exposed to a virus on airplanes, trains and cruise ships. The locations of dwellings have been used to identify hot spots for infection including flu trends. Even our cell phones can help to track an infectious event, speeding up both detection and resolution.
Although the benefit to public health is apparent, loyalty programs may never partake in extolling these particular virtues when promoting membership. After all, who wants to suggest the possibility of any potential problems while trying to attract a devoted following? Yet, as we have seen over the last decade, infections can happen anywhere and rapidly available information is the key to minimizing harm. So, while the pitch for signing on and acquiring yet another card may be monetary in nature, consider just how it might help public health officials in the event of an outbreak. Who knows, maybe it might even help save your life.
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You may think you're cleaning your plates and cups when in fact you could just be spreading bacteria all over them. A sponge or wash cloth can house 134,630 bacteria/square inch, so you may want to keep it clean. You can either zap the sponge in the microwave for a minute, run it in the dishwasher, or make sure all the food scraps are cleaned off and allow to dry completely.
When you need to wash your hands while making dinner, you have to use the faucet handle (with your dirty hands). The faucet handle essentially sees many hands before they've been washed, so don't forget to wipe it down.
A study written about on NBC.com found that "7 percent of kitchen towels were contaminated with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), the difficult-to-treat staph bacteria that can cause life-threatening skin infections." The best way to avoid germy kitchen towels is to wash them once to twice a week, and allow them to completely air dry.
When is the last time you wiped down your microwave buttons? For many of us, that answer would be close to never. But think about how many times dirty fingers are in contact those buttons. Next time you clean the inside of your microwave (which we sure hope you do), be sure to get the outside too.
In a recent study conducted by the University of Virginia, "researchers asked 30 adults who were beginning to show signs of a cold, to name 10 places they'd touched in their homes over the previous 18 hours. The researchers then tested those areas for cold viruses. The tests found viruses on 41 percent of the surfaces tested, and every one of the salt and pepper shakers tested were positive for cold viruses." To solve this, just remember to wipe down your shakers when you wipe down your kitchen table.
Make sure you mop your kitchen floors regularly, particularly the spot in front of the kitchen sink. You know how dirty that sink and everything that has to do with it can get, and the floor space right next to it is certainly not exempt.
Naturally, the cutting board is full of grooves and gouges from all the cutting that has occurred on it; those are great places for germs to hide. Be sure to thoroughly clean your cutting board with soap and hot water after each use. And it's a good idea to reserve one cutting board for meat and another for fruits and veggies.
Kitchen counters get loaded with a bunch of stuff. We throw our keys on them, grocery bags, purses, mail. The list goes on and on. And all these items that we put on the counter are loaded with germs from everywhere else they've been. Be sure to wipe down the counter regularly, and do it with a clean sponge.
Since the kitchen sink is where everything that's dirty goes to get cleaned, it makes sense that it's one of the dirtiest (and germ-iest) spots in your kitchen. The best way to solve this is to wipe down your sink regularly; treat it like you would a dirty dish.
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