Food safety for vending machines
By Zachary Attree
Office pantry services can prevent food-borne illness
By Zachary Attree
Technology transforms everything it touches, and the vending industry is no different. In a few years time, every food item we purchase could have its entire history – from the farm, to the production facility to the vending machine – tracked and labelled right on the package. Smart packaging will monitor internal food temperatures and assess whether the contents are safe for consumption.
Already, oxygen absorbers in packaging are preventing exposure to damaging elements to maintain product freshness. Vintners can embed radio-frequency identification devices (RFID) in their wine bottles to give customers every data point on a particular vintage through their smart devices. Forward-thinking market leaders have begun to embrace smart packaging applications, but in 2019 many of these innovations are still a long way off. Ultimately, it’s still up to food retailers to ensure the product they sell or serve is safe to consume.
Nobody wants to run the risk of spoiled food being sold, and the reputational damage that can result. Fortunately, refrigeration technology has also become smarter and more efficient in recent years, especially the merchandisers that are so central to the vending and micromarket industries. Micromarkets developed as a response to consumer demands for fresher, healthier prepared foods than vending machines typically provide. Because these offerings are more perishable than traditional vending machine foods, the choice of refrigeration unit is even more critical.
Fortunately, keeping food fresh and safe in an optimized merchandiser is more straightforward and easier than ever. It depends on three main safeguards: regular cleaning and maintenance, proper air circulation, and having a reliable temperature monitor to safeguard against spoilage.
Cleaning is the new maintenance
One of the best ways to prevent equipment breakdowns is to regularly clean and inspect refrigeration units. Develop a regular schedule for cleaning the inside and outside of merchandiser units, to reduce wear and tear and at the same time conduct inspections of critical components like the condenser, the compressor and the evaporator fans. Be sure to use separate cleaning materials for the outside and inside of units, to prevent any transfer of bacteria that could contaminate the food. And keep cleaning equipment for refrigeration units separate from those used for floors or other equipment in the store.
Most units sold today are self-defrosting, but if you have manual defrost units schedule regularly defrosts to prevent serious damage to compressors. In all matters, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, or better yet, buy units that have automatic defrosting functionality.
New condenser designs require much less maintenance compared to the condenser coils of yesteryear that would trap dirt and grease and become clogged and break down. The spiral condenser that Minus Forty has designed has much more negative space and less surface area for contaminants to settle on. A visual inspection every few months and a semi-annual cleaning is enough to ensure it’s operating at peak efficiency.
Another area to check during cleaning are the evaporator fans which need air circulation to operate. Make sure employees and suppliers know how to pack units so that air flow isn’t impeded. When cleaning the glass and the doors conduct a visual inspection of the gaskets all the way around the seal to make sure there are no gaps or tears. Changing a gasket is relatively easy and costs very little when compared to the energy costs you’ll have to incur if the unit has to work overtime.
NAMA approved Smartlock and NSF certification
In an environment where doors are being opened and closed dozens of times each day, refrigerated merchandising units should be monitored to maintain optimal temperatures and ensure that food spoilage is avoided. For instance, chilled foods such as microwavable meals and sandwiches should be kept between 3°C and 5°C. Temperature variations could potentially contribute to many of the threats posed to food safety throughout the supply chain, including bacteria, pathogens, and cross-contamination. Much like smart packaging, the advent of automated temperature management systems like the Minus Forty’s NAMA approved Smartlock, gives operators more control and a higher degree of confidence that their food is being maintained at a safe temperature. A Smartlock food health monitor is a built-in device that alerts retail managers to a change in refrigerator or freezer temperature that could jeopardize the state of the food. If the temperature rises above a certain temperature point for a pre-set period of time, the unit automatically locks the door preventing access to potentially hazardous food. This is especially important in micro market environments that are often accessible 24 hours a day. Once the door is unlocked by the operator, food can be inspected and information gathered about what caused the temperature to rise, and what next steps must be taken. In the meantime, customers have not been sold any spoiled product. Vending operators should also consider purchasing refrigerated units that have the NSF certification mark. This means that the product has been rigorously tested by one of the most respected independent certification organizations out there today. It means that the equipment complies with all standard requirements and continues to comply with the standard.
In the not too distant future, our food packaging will probably talk to us, like Alexa does, with messages like “This is a health alert! I contain three billion microbes that have developed in the past 48 hours and are reproducing at two million microbes a minute! Not safe to consume!” But until that day arrives, most vending operators want the peace of mind that comes with the best refrigeration technology on the market. o
Zachary Attree is the Innovation Manager at Minus Forty Technologies. He has a background in manufacturing, IT professional services, and the Tech sector.