It is one thing buying or specifying an item of refrigeration on price or functionality, but how do you or your operational colleagues ensure it is operating the way it is supposed to and delivering optimal value for money? Chris Ebsworth of Abacus Guardian explains why purchasers need to actively embrace new monitoring and data logging as a way to meet food safety regulations and maximise performance.
Working in the foodservice and hospitality industry, we all know that maintaining high standards in food storage and hygiene is critical. With scare stories over the past few years ranging from the horse meat scandal to the latest report on campylobacter, the requirements for good practice, monitoring and accountability are becoming increasingly stringent.
Organisations may not be able to control every part of the food supply chain, but it is important to ensure that any foodstuff is transported safely to your premises and stored according to correct guidelines once on site.
Keeping cool in the kitchen
Temperature plays a crucial role in safe food storage. Chilling food at the correct temperature helps to slow the growth of harmful pathogenic micro-organisms. According to industry guidelines, fridges and chilled display equipment should be set at a maximum of 5°C to ensure that chilled food is kept at 8°C or below.
This is a legal requirement in all countries in the UK (except Scotland where it is a recommendation), while freezers should be kept at -18°C. These temperatures also apply to food in transit. For monitoring purposes, refrigeration equipment should have a temperature display on the casing, or have an internal thermometer which should be monitored and recorded regularly — usually at the start of the day and then at specified intervals.
It has been standard practice in the food industry to monitor temperature manually, often using electronic probes and writing down temperatures to create a set of records. However, this process is open to error and inconsistent practice i.e. measuring temperatures in different parts of a coldroom, or after a door has been left open for a period of time. For reliable records, it’s important to maintain consistency and to always check the temperature of the warmest part of the chilling facility.
Fortunately, advances in technology mean that we are now able to automate many temperature monitoring processes, eliminating variability and human error. While automatic temperature logging has been possible for some time, it has developed radically in recent years.
Furthermore, the introduction of strict legislation, the affordability of computers and the rapid increase in the use of mobile devices has resulted in a new generation of monitoring systems. If target temperatures are not maintained, these automated systems will trigger an alarm, enabling organisations to tackle the breach immediately before food is spoiled, reducing the risk of contamination. Many of these systems also operate 24/7, which is crucial to the effective monitoring of health and safety — and also to reducing waste.
Technology is great — but as we all know, it can also bring its own complications. Some systems require the installation of specialised software, involving compatibility issues and complex instructions on configuration, administration and maintenance. This is fine if you have access to a helpful IT department, but if you don’t have that luxury, the good news is there are other systems on the market that are cost-effective, simple to install and also meet or even exceed all current requirements of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) quality standards.
The new generation of systems are often less expensive than the level of technology involved might suggest. In fact, due to the automation involved, they often work out more cost-effective than carrying out monitoring manually, as well as being more reliable and less labour intensive. Many systems use wireless temperature sensors which make them easy to install as well as offering flexibility.
These sensors are usually designed to report to any hub which means that they can be fixed, roaming on pallets or placed in cool boxes to be tracked as part of the supply chain. These systems can be accessed from anywhere using mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, as well as PCs.
Wireless systems can generally be classified as web-based or 3G systems.
Web based: These eliminate the need for a dedicated computer or special software, so on-site equipment costs are kept to a minimum. Many web-based systems can send text alarms and emails using an individual’s smart phone as both an alarm module and as a remote display. This eliminates the need for special alarm panels, further reducing the cost. A web-based system can also ensure that you have HACCP compliant temperature records, providing auditors with straightforward printed graphs with just a few clicks of a button, instantly proving due diligence compliance.
3G systems: These communicate through the mobile phone system so there is no need to connect them to your premises network, eliminating the cost of any IT setup. Installation can be as simple as placing a sensor on a shelf and plugging in a 3G hub, making them a great low-cost installation option.
As both types of system eliminate the need to record, correlate and archive cabinet temperatures manually, they also help to reduce administration costs. Most importantly, these systems provide fully automatic 24-hour monitoring with real time alarms. This ensures that, in the event of a fridge failure, action can be taken immediately to protect valuable stock.
Ensuring good practice throughout the food chain is critical. From cleaning surfaces to chilled storage, any organisation involved in the production, transportation or serving of food to the public is likely to come under continuing close scrutiny — and with good reason. Whether you choose to go down the automated route, or prefer to put your trust in manual practice, it is important to regularly review practice and ensure that you have systems in place to alert you instantly should those systems fail.
Chris Ebsworth is general manager of Abacus Guardian, a manufacturer and supplier of measurement solutions for critical storage, process and transport applications for the food and cold chain distribution industries.www.abacusguardian.com