05/12/2014 08:23 EDT | Updated 07/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Did You Know Supermarket Loyalty Programs Have Public Health Rewards?

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.

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An employee unloads punnets of strawberries from a pallet inside a Rewe supermarket, operated by the Rewe Group, in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Berlin retail sales adjusted for inflation climbed 5.8 percent last year, according to the city's statistics office, compared with a rise of just 0.1 percent in Germany as a whole. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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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