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Refrigeration: A hands-off approach to safety

13 April 2006

The new hazard analysis, critical control points (HACCP) requirements introduced from this January do not specifically require caterers to invest in extra equipment. However, John Savage, foodservice director of Foster Refrigerator, believes that total reliance on manual temperature readings has its shortcomings.

While most modern commercial fridges now have digital displays, what the read-outs show can vary. Some, Savage points out, read air temperature at different places within the cabinet, with sensors that are close to the air coming off the evaporator likely to show colder temperatures than sensors in the return air section. "It is a bit of a lottery," he observes.

The best method, other than checking products manually with an accurate thermometer probe, is to use a sensor that attempts to simulate food products using a thermal delay thermometer. However, simply writing down results, albeit on approved forms, also has flaws. "The new HACCP regulations are all about controlling risks," Savage says, "but the biggest
risk with any system is, will people go round at a regular interval and write down temperatures?"

Such records can also, without too much difficulty, be falsified after an incident has occurred or if someone forgets to take records over a period of time.

In Savage's view, systems that automatically take records of cabinet usage are the best way to take risk out of the HACCP process. At larger sites, this will also save staff valuable hours spent laboriously writing down numbers. "Logging systems give you piece of mind," he points out, "and if cabinets go outside of the temperature range, an alarm enables stock to be saved."

Foster has for some time offered a basic internal logging unit at a list price of £134 (lower, if 10 or more cabinets are fitted with them). And for larger sites there is the option of monitoring every cabinet and sending the information to a radio receiver, which will then pass it on to a computer.

A variety of such systems are now available (see page 58) but they are not in widespread use. One incentive for wider adoption could be public liability insurance. Simon Wood, technical manager of temperature monitoring system specialist Monika, comments: "It has to be questioned whether data obtained manually by someone going round the equipment twice a day will ultimately hold up legally."

Wood points out that continuous recording offers greater accuracy over time, as well as integrity.

However, while the new HACCP regulations encourage automatic monitoring of kitchen storage and other processes, lack of compatibility could become a problem, especially in terms of linking with computers for data analysis and other automatic functions such as remote service alarms, inventory checking and the logging of cleaning schedules.

"All manufacturers have their own protocols," Wood observes. This could make it difficult, and thus costly, for a large kitchen to hook up several different types of equipment - cookers and dishwashers, say, as well as refrigeration units.

Wood heads a committee established by the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association (CESA) to look at this issue. "The biggest problem," he says, "is that there are so many different technologies which can do similar things, so different manufacturers go different ways with it. It will take a while for it all to shake out."

Initial research suggests that a data-handling protocol developed over the past three years by the US trade association North American Foodservice Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM) may be the best way to go, although there are concerns that it might be over-specified for some applications. In simple terms, it is based on ethernet connection, which has become the most widely used frame-based computer networking technology for local area networks (LANs). It enables electronic devices to be easily interconnected using readily available hardware.

"As yet, we don't have a lot of people asking for such systems," comments David Vasey, Delfield Sadia brand director at Enodis UK Food Service Group. But part of the reason for this, he feels, is that early systems were expensive. "You are now talking about £1,000 for a system for automatically monitoring, say, eight to 10 cabinets," he says, "whereas five years ago it would have been nearer £5,000."

As well as checking temperatures at 15-minute intervals and making that data available to password-holders via the internet, Delfield Sadia's latest system lets service engineers interrogate cabinets remotely on a two-way basis, which allows them to change the operating parameters of the cabinets, if necessary. "Benefits like that can soon pay for the extra equipment cost," Vasey says.

Like Delfield Sadia, Williams Refrigeration can network all its equipment at a user site to enable data to be fed automatically to a central computer. According to bakery sales manager Nick Garner, a network can extend over 63 fridge or freezer cabinets or 20 blast chillers (or combinations of the two). The computer data is accessed using Excel, a program which allows it to be processed as a spreadsheet, graphs or in other formats.

Systems are connected to a central computer using industry-standard RS232 ports but a radio-based alternative is expected soon. As well as processing the data, the computer immediately flashes up any alerts (such as out-of-temperature deviations) and can text-message these to the mobile telephones of as many as four service engineers.

Another move to simplify HACCP record-keeping is to be seen on the Intelligent series of cabinets from Caravell. As well as having predetermined settings for the correct storage of different types of food, cabinets have sensors to enable readings to be taken every one to 10 minutes, hourly or daily, and logged on built-in software. This information can be uploaded via an infra-red connection to a special key fob with 40kbyte of memory, for subsequent transfer to a computer and analysis in graph form. Audible alarms alert staff if temperature or humidity safe zones are breached.

For kitchens where several different makes of refrigerator, display equipment and coldroom are in use, there has been an increase in the number of third-party systems available, led by specialist makers of temperature-reading instruments.

Geoff Wenham, director of Ice Spy, believes that remote monitoring resolves two key issues. "You can't cheat in the way you can with manual records," he points out, "and collecting the data centrally makes it possible to employ software that converts data into more revealing formats. You can tell a lot more from figures when they are in graph form because they highlight changes and trends over time."

Temperature recording aside, the demands of HACCP also have an important bearing on food-handling procedures, notably the stabilising of cooked meat prior to refrigerated storage. While table-top blast chillers have appeared in recent years, there is often not enough room for one in a small kitchen. One recently introduced option from Angelo Po combines a 400-litre upright fridge equipped with a small blast chiller able to take as much as 20kg of food from 90°C to 3°C in less than 90 minutes (or freeze as much as 12kg within 240 minutes). By placing the cabinet adjacent to a compatible combi-steamer, it becomes possible to assemble a complete cook-chill system with a minimum footprint.

Still on the subject of blast chillers, a facility called intelligent food recognition (IFR) is now being offered on blast chillers from both Angelo Po and Gram. It includes a probe with three different sensors which recognises temperatures of products being chilled at different points: immediately outside the product, inside the outer layer and at the core of the food. The higher level of control possible helps avoid any tendency toward surface freezer burn and damage, with its potential for loss of appearance, fragrance and flavour.

HACCP technology Most of the specialist suppliers listed here offer a range of temperature probing and logging instruments.

Comark The HACCP Auditor, developed in conjunction with HaccpWorks and Hygiene Audit Systems, takes readings by probe or connection to cabinet monitors, storing as many as 3,000 readings for downloading to a computer or printer. Auditor costs about £700 including computer links.

Tel: 01438 367367
www.comarkltd.com

Ice Spy/Abacus Catering Solutions
Offers monitoring systems on small battery-powered sensors which clip to refrigerator shelves (or other equipment) and send readings - typically, every hour - to a central unit. Basic systems start at about £850 for a five-probe network with software and connections. Systems linking 32 sensors to one base unit by radio cost about £5,000, including staff training.

Tel: 01529 306938

Monika
Developed to provide simple-to-use, paperless systems which transmit data via existing electrical cabling, Monika's temperature monitoring systems are now found in more than 1,500 catering sites in the UK. The latest systems comprise three modules, including wireless hand-readers using radio frequency identification technology.

Tel: 01664 420022
www.monika.com

Digitron The DigiTrack Mobile HACCP Recording System uses a hand-held Symbol PDA (personal data assistant) able to take temperatures using an attached probe, and to check inventory and cleaning schedules, with all input data time-stamped. Wireless versions can send data to computers and operate multi-user networks.

Tel: 01803 407693
www.digitron.co.uk

Remote Analysis Generation Offers a radio-linked wireless system for automatically monitoring refrigeration cabinets or other equipment. Typical price for 10 probes plus transmitters and receiver unit, for connection to a computer, is about £3,000.

Tel: 0870 850 1416
www.ragcomms.com

Electronic Temperature Instruments Systems available include a budget system based on a Dell PDA with an add-on thermometer and HACCP software. Thermaguard units, priced at £120, continuously monitor equipment and phone the user when there is an alarm.

Tel: 01903 202151
http://thermometer.co.uk/

Testo The range on offer goes from probes and electronic thermometers (contact and non-contact) to data-loggers for uninterrupted documentation of the complete refrigeration chain.

Tel: 01420 544433
www.testo.co.uk

Hanna Instruments Data-loggers for mounting inside a fridge are available from £120. Also offered are four-channel multi-loggers linking to a PC by cable or radio.

Tel: 01525 850855
www.hannainst.co.uk

Cooper Atkins The HACCP Manager collects data from as many as 2,000 points for downloading to a PC. The Intelli-PDA hand-held unit can take probe readings and track inventory, etc, storing data and transmitting it via radio for processing on TempTrak software.

Tel: 01793 538308
www.cooper-atkins.com

Proges-Plus Thermo-Buttons cost about £20 each and measure 16mm in diameter by 6mm thick. They record date and time and have an alarm programmable for low and high temperatures. They can be read by a hand-held pen which transmits data to a PC up to 4km away.

Tel: 00 33 3 20 64 63 63
www.thermotrack.com

Next Control Systems A sensing system, available on a quarterly rental package, automates the remote recording of food temperature using a secure GPRS private network which allows monitoring via the internet.

Tel: 01252 406398
www.nextcontrols.com

Tips on HACCP compliance

  • Institute a simple records system that identifies critical areas such as delivery, storage, preparation, chilling, thawing, cooking and service.
  • Monitor these critical areas by regularly recording temperatures, date codes, times, weights, etc, in a simple, easy-to-follow format. Environmental health practitioners are basically keen to establish that caterers know what they are doing.
  • Review training procedures.
  • Get rid of old, outmoded equipment; inspectors see clutter as a sign of lax hygiene.
  • Check "use by" and "best before" dates daily.
  • As a basic investment, purchase one or more probe thermometers (plus wipes to clean probes prior to use).
  • Consider investment in a blast chiller if food has to be chilled down regularly, and a controlled thawing cabinet where high-risk foods such as frozen poultry are used in quantity.

Source: Foster Refrigerator's Blue Paper on "Safer food, better business".
Fridge suppliers

  • Angelo Po, 0870 460 6750
  • Caravell UK, 01280 826600
  • Enodis UK/Delfield Sadia, 020 8561 0433
  • Foster Refrigerator, 01553 691122
  • Gram UK, 01322 616900
  • Williams Refrigeration, 01553 817000
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