Had an opportunity to speak with Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette this week between traveling in Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska about recalls and how government and industry could do better. The discussion comes on the heals of the HVP recall:

• The FDA Web site, www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/HVPCP, includes this information about each recalled food item: category, brand name, product description, recalling firm, size, lot numbers, stock numbers, product code.

• The list of recalled products, updated by the FDA on March 16, included 159 items.

• Food items in these categories are listed: bouillons, dressing and dressing mixes, flavoring bases and seasonings, frozen foods, gravy mixes, prepared salads, ready-to-eat meals, sauce and marinade mixes, snacks and snack mixes, soups, soup mixes, dips, dip mixes, spreads, flavoring base and seasoning products and stuffing.

The discussion with Mr. Lutey was the recent move by Congress to ask if supermarkets should be better at notifying customers of food recalls by tapping data collected through store loyalty cards and store club memberships.

“All of them have the ability to track people by purchases,” said Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food-borne illness and publisher of Food Safety News, an online journal. “The question is whether they want to use it for good or evil, whether they want to find out if we buy a lot of Twinkies or if they want to let us know that we bought a poisonous product.”

Food recalls typically start after people get sick, or after a company receives notice from a lab that its food has tested positive for contaminants, Marler said. It’s not uncommon for the tainted food to continue being shipped for sale until the test comes back. Less often, a food manufacturer will test an ingredient bought from a supplier and contact the government over a bad result.

The Consumer Recall Notification Act introduced in the U.S. Senate last week would change the notification process. Food companies would have to notify restaurants and retailers of contaminated food within 24 hours. The federal government would have to extend its notifications far down the food chain, to clinics and emergency rooms.

It will be interesting to see how interested the public is in balancing privacy vs the ability to track poisoned food.