Nathaniel Sheetz, Director of Product Management
In a previous blog entry, Veronica Orozco and Kyle Ferlic asked how retailers can “do food safety well,” particularly with respect to leveraging technology to implement thorough Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedures. Here, I’d like to explore this topic in more detail, with a particular focus on two of the most important factors for ensuring food safety—time and temperature.
Food safety veterans know that other factors play a role, like food, acidity, oxygen and moisture. But in retail environments, time and temperature come to the forefront. For most items produced, these factors are easiest to control and can thus eliminate some of the biggest food safety risks that challenge retailers.
However, even though these factors are relatively easy to control, doing so isn’t always straight forward. A host of complications quickly arise:
- Food codes differ from state to state and locality to locality, and even federal guidelines are regularly updated as the science of food safety advances.
- Different products, even in the same category, require different cook temperatures and holding temperatures.
- “Excessive” food safety leads to poor product quality and wasted energy—overcooked product is no safer than properly cooked food, but it costs more to prepare and tastes worse.
- There’s no single “right answer” when it comes to specific procedures. Companies must evaluate their position in the marketplace and analyze the risks associated with food safety as they define their critical control points, critical limits and corrective actions.
- Even the best plans are foiled by poor execution. Success depends not just on the right plan, but also effective leadership, clear expectations and a culture of accountability.
To meet these challenges, companies feel pressure to compromise. The risks of poor execution and the complexities of a patchwork quilt of local regulations, for example, have driven some retailers to sacrifice on food quality and energy costs in order to ensure safety and compliance. Others have chosen to bear the ongoing expense of extensive employee training and review in order to ensure that more complex procedures can be properly carried out.
But how much compromise is really necessary? With technology being used in all industries to tackle increasingly complex problems, it shouldn’t be a surprise that technology can help retailers implement carefully tuned food safety procedures that protect product flavor, reduce energy costs, guide inexperienced employees, and—most importantly—keep food safe. How so? Let’s examine three specific challenges, and three ways that technology can help overcome them, in the context of a specific example in which time and temperature play crucial roles.
Illustrating the challenges
Imagine a retail food production process in which an item is prepared, cooked, put out for sale in hot holding, and, after some period of time, any leftovers are cooled and converted into another item for sale. A classic example of this is rotisserie chicken—a high-volume product that is sold hot as well as incorporated as an ingredient in cold products such as chicken salads.
The first challenge considered here is process complexity. This category includes both the temperature thresholds for cooking, holding and cooling, as well as the time requirements associated with each step in the process. Not only that, but any divergence from the desired path must be identified—such as out-of-compliance temperature readings—and clear steps must be provided to rectify the situation.
A second challenge is found in the collection of data. Data capture typically requires valuable labor time, and it is often susceptible to inaccuracies due to training deficiencies or negligence. A single batch of rotisserie chicken through its lifecycle may require six or more temperature checks, and each one could be rendered invalid by improper technique.
After data is collected, the third challenge appears: data presentation. All of that data is often stored in ways that make it difficult for appropriate stakeholders to clearly understand the situation at the store level. In the rotisserie chicken example, store and district users need to see not just a list of temperature violations for the day, but also have the tools to evaluate the overall effectiveness of execution, review the costs of execution and identify root causes of issues.
Exploring the solutions
Now let’s turn to solutions and see how each of these challenges might be tackled with appropriate use of technology.
First, it’s clear that complex processes in food safety are here to stay. But technology can help manage these workflows to ensure chain-wide compliance, and most importantly, make the complexities invisible to the end user. So, instead of relying on associates to remember the appropriate cook temperature for rotisserie chicken, the system might evaluate that in the background and simply provide a visual display to the user indicating whether the captured temperature is in compliance. Similarly, instead of requiring employees to remember when to take holding temperatures or cool-down temperatures, the system might show due times or a color-coded map that indicates which cases and products need to be temped next.
Additionally, fast and accurate methods are needed for collecting data. Mobile devices with wirelessly linked temperature probes and scanners eliminate the risk of errors made when copying values from a dial to paper. Temperature stabilization algorithms help ensure accurate temperatures by preventing users from capturing temperatures before they have stabilized. And, in some contexts, integration with remote sensors can eliminate the manual effort of capturing temperatures entirely.
Finally, once all of this data has been captured, it must be accessible and understandable. Automated follow-up tasks and notifications can facilitate appropriate verification and interaction between managers and employees. A visual workflow view might track the batch of rotisserie chicken through its entire lifecycle, clearly identifying the critical control points and any violations along the way. And custom reports can be available at corporate or in the store that track violations, group them, and help identify trends.
With so many factors in play, achieving the right balance between complexity and ease of use in food safety is no easy task. But with the assistance of technology, complex processes can be mapped, implemented and tracked with relative ease. The natural results of such an effort include faster and more consistent responses to food safety action triggers, more consistent execution, improved food quality, lower labor and energy costs, and simple, intuitive access to collected data.
In future blog entries, we’ll explore how these and similar technologies can impact a retailer’s business in other ways, such as sanitation, product consistency, merchandising compliance, and production planning. These areas can also benefit from HACCP’s concept of “critical control points” to map out the appropriate actions that should take place to ensure compliance. In short, the technology we have explored today can have an impact that extends far beyond food safety.