Get refrigeration wrong and you not only risk large lawsuits but can also endanger your colleagues’ lives, says Jason Webb.
It is a legal requirement for businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to store cold foods at 8˚C or below. The UK’s Food Standards Agency recommends that fridges should be set at 5˚C. Keeping foods at higher temperatures accelerates build-up of harmful bacteria, such as e-coli and listeria.
Well-documented instances of food poisoning and violation cases have been seen in the media as restaurants serving food on unhygienic wooden boards put the health of customers at risk.
Maintaining safe cooling and refrigeration temperatures is tough in normal times, but what happens in periods of reduced or increased use? The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the effect that can be wrought on food storage by any deviation from the norm, such as building closures, fluctuations in employee numbers and changes to supply chains.
The UK government’s stay-at-home order forced many organisations to shut their doors for weeks, leaving office kitchens unstaffed. In some cases facilities and catering teams have been running a reduced operation. Staff in the NHS, emergency services, banks, and telecoms industry still need to be fed. Schools remain open for the children of key workers and children who depend on free school meals.
Catering staff working in a building with reduced occupancy must re-evaluate their stock and delivery orders. Doing this will save money by cutting back on unnecessary waste and prevent unused food from spoiling in fridges.
Energy savings are possible with more efficient management of kitchen facilities in periods of reduced use. A typical commercial refrigerator uses 70kWh a day, which amounts to 41 per cent of electricity usage across all key appliances within a catering service. Switch off your fridge if it is not in use.
For catering providers that switched to a mobile or delivery service to adhere to social distancing rules, the crisis also proved the challenges of keeping refrigeration temperatures steady during transit.
Transporting foods over long distances, often overnight, can lead to perishable goods degrading fast if they are not stored at the right temperatures. Catering firms can mitigate this risk by using wireless thermometer loggers to track the temperature during the delivery process.
Alerts can be sent directly to the team responsible should product temperatures reach high or low limits, or the refrigeration systems in the delivery vehicle fail. These rapid and accurate readings are sent to a host device, eliminating human error.
Many organisations have had to manage the return to the office since lockdown measures were eased. Too many people coming back at once, however, would mean another sudden change for catering teams that have been storing food for a limited number of employees. This carries different risks. If a catering team is suddenly overwhelmed with too many orders staff, fridges may not be able to cope.
Overfilling refrigerators and cool rooms with produce reduces the air flow and leads to hot spots, where bacteria can flourish even if you think you have the right temperature set on the dial. To combat this, caterers should keep an inventory of how much their stock needs to be refrigerated and use the latest technology to back temperature recordings every few hours so that it never goes above critical limits.
Monitoring air and core temperature in refrigeration units allows users to install early-alert systems. Introduce active steps in catering operations to keep people safe. The last thing anyone needs, particularly the NHS, is a wave of food poisoning cases.
Jason Webb is director at Electronic Temperature Instruments