Generating Loyalty By Saving Customer Lives

The millions of people who have food allergies in the U.S.—and especially the parents of allergic children—are a fiercely loyal group when it comes to retailers that flag potential problems. Given that an unflagged ingredient may prove lethal, such loyalty is not unexpected. How can retailers make a concerted effort to help this rather large group? A university-vendor-food company alliance is trying to craft a way by leveraging mobile phones.

Smartphones scanning barcodes is easy. The tricky part is accessing a frequently updated database that knows of the smallest ingredients—a recent CDC probe identified a food poisoning culprit as contaminated black pepper sprinkled on salami—and current non-obvious food triggers. For example, a latex allergy sufferer can be sent into anaphylactic shock (possible death) by being exposed to Kiwi, avocado or chestnuts. How many restaurants would even know to hesitate serving guacamole or a kiwi salad to someone with a latex allergy?

Food giant Nestlé, barcode vendor GS1 Australia and Australia's Deakin University are working to create an iPhone app that accesses just such a database after the phone scans a barcode.

GS1 isn't only pursuing the allergy element of healthcare. Its U.S. branch on Tuesday (April 6) announced a deal with Kroger (the $77 billion grocery chain with 2,468 stores in 31 states) endorsing its online service, which is designed to standardize food and product recalls. Called the Rapid Recall Exchange, the service was developed with the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The standardization of recalls is a critical move. It also has huge potential for generating customer loyalty. The consumer who sees a recall E-mail seconds before eating a contaminated hamburger isn't likely to shop elsewhere for quite some time. (Unless the contamination was that retailer's fault, in which case it doesn't get any brownie points for the lifesaving message.)