A federal judge has ruled against Safeway Inc., ordering the retailer to produce witnesses in a case that seeks to force the company to use loyalty card information to contact customers regarding food recalls.

Federal judge orders Safeway to produce witnessesThe case, filed in March 2011 on behalf of two consumers by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, could become a class-action suit involving thousands. Safeway’s legal team has consistently stonewalled requests from the plaintiffs for documents and information.

In a Dec. 22 order, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg said the parties had reached an impasse.

“Safeway’s … responses state that it will produce responsive documents, but Safeway has yet to produce any documents,” the judge wrote in his order.

Judge Seeborg reminded Safeway that six days earlier he overruled its objections to providing information “on all substantive topics,” including its recall policies and procedures and its “Just for U” loyalty card program.

The judge set a new schedule that focuses on whether the case should be a class action. Safeway opposes class action status. The judge wants the plaintiffs’ brief supporting class status by Feb. 26, with Safeway’s response due March 19. A hearing on the class status is set for June 11.

The retailer previously asked that the case be dismissed, saying it does not have responsibility to consumers after they complete their purchases. The judge disagreed, saying in an order “numerous California cases” have recognized that a seller’s duties can extend beyond the point of sale.

Recalls related to fresh eggs and a variety of products made with peanut butter spurred the case against the Pleasanton, Calif.-based retailer. The plaintiffs contend Safeway should have used their loyalty card contact information to notify them when the products were recalled.

Although the case does not involve fresh produce, the outcome could affect all suppliers who work with Safeway, as well as the retailer itself.

The complaint states repeatedly that forcing Safeway to use loyalty card information to notify customers by phone, mail and e-mail “will cost Safeway nothing because Safeway’s suppliers agree to reimburse all costs associated with notice and refunds” in food safety recall situations.