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All in the Packaging

The good news is that tracking was adequate to identify tainted beef for recall even back in 2003, when the first case of Mad Cow was identified. Better yet, one grocery store chain (Albertson’s) used customer discount cards to trace people who had purchased the beef and provide a courtesy alert to the recall. In other words, technology was able to draw a clear line of data to those who had purchased the dodgy product. Meanwhile, other stores in the area hesitated to use the same technology because of concerns about customer privacy.

This is in part because consumers have, from the first, raised justifiable questions about these kinds of technologies that allow retailers to target people more effectively for marketing—and pose some genuine security risks. Some of the fiercest arguments arise because items scanned by the RFID reader at the checkout can be linked to a customer discount card, and the information that was gathered when this card was issued. If you pay with a credit card, the potential exists for retailers to track items purchased in other stores.

The potential for use and abuse are high because anyone might have a reader. As critics point out, a bar code is visible and the information revealed by your credit or discount card at least requires you to swipe it. RFID, on the other hand, is frequently implemented without customer participation or recognition.

Yet even those familiar bar codes in your local grocery store allow a company to compile a lot of data about what you buy and link it to things like your address and telephone number. The one bit of good news about all this stored information is that if the chicken you bought on Saturday morning came from a facility where birds were found to have avian flu, at least the grocery store should be able to track the purchase, pull up your phone number, and give you a call before you cook Sunday dinner.

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