How technology is changing the food safety game
When he started working in the industry two decades ago, a thermometer, gloves and a flashlight were the basic food safety tools, recalls Jorge Hernandez, chief food safety officer of Wholesome International, a 40-unit franchisee of the Five Guys burger brand and operator of four Choolaah Indian BBQ eateries, based in Pittsburgh.
Such gear is still important, of course. But over the years, technology and equipment advances have boosted food safety capabilities. Smart kitchen technology communicates with the operator and with software programs that capture data and analyze potential food safety risks. Whole genome sequencing of foodborne pathogens identifies the cause of contamination sooner. And there are more breakthroughs to come.
Hernandez foresees cooking equipment with built-in sensors—such as a high-tech meat skewer that flashes a color code when a chicken kebob is cooked to a safe temperature—that will make checking food temperatures easier, quicker and virtually automatic. “We haven’t gotten there yet,” says Hernandez. “But this is an example of how [temperature-monitoring equipment] is changing. It has to be faster, more accurate and able to record data automatically and wirelessly.”
Other advances will be predictive and preventative. “I am looking at technology that tells me where my potential failure points are, and the probability that I will have a problem with the meat or the vegetables or the yogurt, based on instruments that take continuous data points,” says Hernandez.
Adds Hernandez, “We’re trying to anticipate problems. If you get the data in the right place and have the right algorithms, you can actually predict what can happen. We are not too far away.”
At Virginia Tech, a 33,000-student university in Blacksburg, Va., Dining Services uses both bimetallic stemmed thermometers and digital thermometers. “We’re moving more toward the digital, because they give a faster temperature reading and they are a little more accurate,” says Andrew Watling, training and project manager at Virginia Tech. Infrared thermometers, although costly for widespread use in campus dining, allow incoming food deliveries to be checked without inserting a temperature probe.
Digital thermometers have been the rule for the last couple of years at South Haven (Michigan) Public Schools, which serve 1,500 lunches per day in five K-12 schools, reports food service director Amy Nichols. Nichols says she is researching management software to capture and process food safety data. That type of program would streamline record keeping at Virginia Tech Dining Services, which is on track to serve 7.5 million meals this year. The department’s current practice is to check and log the temperatures of food on the line manually each hour. Software and equipment that are designed to aid this process are becoming more sought after, as data collection becomes more streamlined, simplified and faster to complete.
Also advancing food safety is the advent of smart kitchen equipment, such as coolers, blast chillers and ovens, and wireless systems that track and record temperatures automatically. Virginia Tech has taken a step in that direction with large storage coolers that can automatically page campus maintenance staff if temperatures rise above the norm, preventing food spoilage and potential illness outbreaks.
“I think the day is not far off when you will have a fully connected kitchen, with equipment pieces that talk to each other,” Watling says.