Machines & Accessories
Cleaning for COVID-19
By Randy Skyba
Food safety best practices for merchandisers and refrigerators
By Randy Skyba
COVID-19 is now a reality for all Canadians and the “new normal” is slowly setting in. With micro markets and convenience stores being declared essential services, you are one of the industries bravely working “the front lines,” making it crucial that you effectively protect both your customers and yourself. As you plan for the weeks and months ahead, this is also an ideal time to look at best practices for ensuring food safety with your refrigeration equipment.
An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure
Besides preventing the spread of COVID-19, keeping a clean, well-maintained refrigerated merchandiser will also help to prevent product spoiling, avoid costly repairs and even replacement. While COVID-19 is top of mind, you cannot lose sight of food safety, because commercial refrigerators and freezers can quickly become bacterial carriers if they are not adequately maintained and cleaned or if their temperature is not stabilized. Given the right conditions, bacteria found in food can double every ten minutes, which means that 1,000 bacteria can grow to 1/2 million in just over an hour and a half!
Soap and water: still effective weapons in the sanitary battle
COVID-19 can survive up to nine days on metal, glass and plastic surfaces if they are not properly disinfected.1 While strong cleaners like bleach or ammonia are fine for floors and countertops, they are actually not recommended for your refrigerated units since they can compromise the quality of the food, possibly contaminate it, and likely make it unfit to eat. (Plus, no one wants to eat a bleach or ammonia scented sandwich.) Soap and water, used properly, will do the job, and effectively at that, just like when you wash your hands to prevent the virus spread. That’s because soap interferes with the fats in COVID-19’s virus shell, which lifts the virus from surfaces and is then rinsed off with water.2
Clean the “high traffic areas” often
We recommend deep cleaning your refrigeration units monthly. However, exterior door handles and doors are “high traffic” areas and should be wiped down several times daily as part of your COVID-19 cleaning routine. You probably have hand sanitizer available for customers at the checkout counter, but having hand sanitizer or sanitizing hand wipes (with at least 70 per cent alcohol content) next to your refrigeration units is another way to help keep your customers clean and safe.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty details
Before deep cleaning your unit’s interior or exterior, always unplug it first. Be sure to use a soft cloth with a non-abrasive liquid detergent cleaner mixed with water. Since excessive liquid can seep into the electrical connections and cause a malfunction or electrical hazard, you should never apply or “spray” any undiluted cleaner directly to the unit. To avoid any contamination, all cleaning materials should also be clean themselves (such as using a fresh cloth each time) and stored between jobs, so bacteria isn’t transferred from one surface to another. You should also keep cleaning equipment for refrigeration units separate from those used for floors or other equipment in the store.
Cleaning also gives you a chance to inspect the unit for any damage. For example, when wiping down the door gaskets and glass, check for gaps or tears in the gaskets, which can cause air leakage or a build-up of dirt or grease. If you’re not able to snap them back into place, they need to be replaced.
Most units are self-defrosting, but if you have manual defrost units, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and do not neglect regular defrosting, as this can aid in avoiding severe damage to compressors.
If your unit has a conventional condenser, it should also be cleaned monthly, to avoid breakdowns caused by an overworked motor. To clean it, remove the front grill, switch off on the control panel and unplug it, then use a small, hand-held duster to clean inside, and, if necessary, a vacuum cleaner to clean up any additional debris. Don’t forget to reattach the front grill, which helps to protect the condenser from debris and damage. Some units are built with low maintenance condensers, which require regular visual inspections and much less frequent cleaning than conventional condensers.
You’ll need to take your equipment’s temperature, too
Just like increased temperatures mean illness in humans, the same could be said for a refrigeration unit. Temperature variations are a serious threat to food safety, potentially contributing to bacteria growth, pathogens and cross-contamination. In micro markets and C-stores where doors are being opened and closed all day, maintaining optimal temperatures within the unit is crucial. For example, chilled foods like sandwiches and microwavable meals should be kept within the 3°C to 5°C range. Short spikes, not exceeding 30 minutes, above 3°C are acceptable. If you do not have a temperature malfunctioning safeguard, you should aim to monitor temperatures frequently each hour to make sure they are within the healthy range. Since you will need to sanitize the handles on merchandizer doors often, you can do both cleaning and temperature monitoring tasks at once.
Your equipment needs to “breathe” as well.
If your refrigeration equipment doesn’t have optimal airflow, or the ability to “breathe,” this can cause a blocked condenser, leading to possible equipment failure, overheating, spoiled product, higher electrical costs and even a void on your warranty. To ensure they are operating under optimal conditions, all refrigeration units should be kept away from the surrounding walls as per the installation instructions, each with their own dedicated electrical outlet and away from other equipment that radiates heat or produces a lot of airborne oil and grime. Regular inspections to check for blockages should also be routine. Be sure to distribute the product evenly inside the unit as well, since overloading blocks interior airflow, which can lead which can lead to spoiled food and irreparable equipment damage. Cabinets are also better able to maintain a stable temperature if they’re stocked with products (but not overstocked) versus empty, since the thermal mass of the refrigerated or frozen products helps to maintain the interior temperature.
To help remember the musts for food safety, you can use the ACT (Airflow, Cleaning and Temperature) acronym. (Although we explained them all in a different order here for the current circumstances.) Thank you for keeping our essential services going during this challenging time. o
Randy Skyba is the Vice-President of Sales and Marketing at Minus Forty Technologies. He helps retailers merchandise their frozen and refrigerated products.