Two shoppers who say they weren’t alerted to recalls of food they purchased at Safeway have filed a lawsuit against the grocery chain.

Representing them in the long-threatened complaint, filed Wednesday, is the advocacy group Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). 

According to a CSPI news release, Dee Hensley-Maclean used her Safeway Club card to buy crackers and cookies that shortly afterward were caught up in the massive recall of products made with Peanut Corporation of American contaminated peanut butter. The Salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009, traced to PCA peanuts, resulted in nine deaths and 714 confirmed infections. 

Jennifer Rosen, also using her Safeway Club card, bought eggs last summer that were implicated in the Salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,500 and led to the recall of more than 500 million eggs.

Both women say they learned about the recalls from other sources and that Safeway made no attempt to notify them about the potentially dangerous food.

In the complaint filed in California Superior Court, the women ask that they and others who bought recalled food be refunded the price of those purchases, and that Safeway commit to using its Club card data to contact consumers during future recalls.

Hensley-Maclean said she first learned of the recall of foods made with peanuts in a letter from Costco, where she had purchased similar snack foods. Rosen said she found out through a neighborhood listserv that the eggs she purchased from Safeway might be contaminated with Salmonella. Neither of the women or their family members became ill.

But Rosen said she and her family had already consumed several of the eggs-including some in raw cookie dough.

“My kids are little so I worried that if they got sick, they could get really sick,” Rosen told CSPI.  “When I had my husband check the numbers on the carton, I couldn’t believe we had contaminated eggs.  Safeway sends me emails all the time with paperless coupons.  I can’t believe they wouldn’t text or email me with news of a recall.”

According to CSPI, Safeway is one of the biggest grocery chains that does not have a system that uses loyalty card data to notify consumers who purchased recalled foods.  Ralphs, Kroger, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Giant Food, Harris Teeter, Wegmans, and ShopRite all routinely issue food safety alerts using a variety of methods, including emails and automated phone calls, CSPI said.

Supermarket shopper cards have also been used by epidemiologists. Shopper card data was a key tool used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year in sleuthing the source of a multistate Salmonella outbreak eventually tied to Daniele Salami.

But in 2009, while their customers suffered from infections from beef tainted with Salmonella TD104 and Salmonella Newport, two nasty strains of Salmonella that resist treatment from commonly used drugs, Kroger-owned King Soopers and Safeway refused to make shopper card data easily available to public health investigators. The Colorado Health Department later said their refusal to cooperate slowed down and hampered the investigation.

“Safeway aggressively uses its Club card data to churn out coupons, analyze its customers’ shopping habits, and otherwise boost sales,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner in the news release.  “Yet when it knows it has sold products that may be contaminated with E. coli, Salmonella, or other hazards, it does not use its robust marketing database to prevent illnesses or deaths. That is hardly the “safe way” and just shows Safeway’s reckless disregard for the health and safety of its shoppers.”

CSPI notified Safeway last year that it might seek a court order directing the company to notify customers who bought food subject to Class 1 recalls if the company did not agree to do so on its own. In a letter to Safeway, CSPI said that selling food with deadly contaminants makes those foods “misbranded” and “adulterated” under federal law and California’s Health and Safety Code and failure to notify consumers that they are at risk violates California’s Business and Professions Code.

For some time CSPI has urged the supermarket industry and other retailers that use bonus or loyalty card programs to contact customers who bought recalled food. In addition, for customers who used a credit card to pay for the food, companies could use their bonus card data to automatically refund the purchase price of the recalled items, CSPI suggested.

Safeway handles recalls “consistent with all legal/regulatory requirements” and issues news releases, posts information on its Web site and sometimes posts notices in stores and on receipts, a company spokeswoman told StorefrontBacktalk. Teena Massingill, Safeway’s director of corporate public affairs, also said the chain has sometimes “used Club Card data to make automated or personal telephone calls to customers regarding recalled products.”

Unlike retail clubs like Costco, Safeway does not require customers to provide contact information to obtain a Club card, Massingill told StorefrontBacktalk’s Evan Schuman. “We consider the information/data that is available to determine how to best provide recall information to our customers.”

CSPI, in filing the lawsuit against Safeway, is working with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Mehri & Skalet and the San Francisco-based Consumer Law Practice.