Tracking temperatures: why data is key to keeping our food safe
As consumer awareness of food traceability and safety reaches new heights amid the COVID-19 pandemic, how can wireless data loggers help organisations rise to new challenges?
By Jason Webb of Electronic Temperature Instruments
If ever a phrase summed up our heightened interest in the provenance of food, it is ‘farm to fork’.
Used as a reference to the various processes in the lifecycle of products, from agricultural production and warehousing to distribution and consumption, it is all about offering consumers transparency about how their food arrives on their plate.
Be it concerns over environmental sustain-ability, animal welfare or product safety, restaurants and retailers have realised that their offerings are not just about the final package presented at a table or on a supermarket shelf.
Indeed, food is also about stories and showcasing responsibility. Succeed here, and consumer conversion and loyalty will follow.
This is borne out in the data. According to a survey by IBM and the US National Retail Federation, almost four in five consumers state it is important for brands to provide guaranteed authenticity, like certifications, when they’re purchasing goods. Within this group, 71% are willing to pay an added premium (of 37%) for companies offering full transparency and traceability.
In the area of food safety specifically, recent research conducted by the University of Kent, University of Reading and IHS Markit found that UK consumers highly value food which has been produced to safety standards set by both the UK and the European Union. The Food Standards Agency also found that 85% of its survey respondents reported being aware of the hygiene standards in places they eat out at or buy food from.
What we call farm to fork has been in overdrive, and recognition must be paid, from fruit pickers to farmers to delivery drivers to manufacturers. All are playing a crucial role to ensure food and drink service suppliers are provided with produce that meets critical food safety standards. Pubs and restaurants are introducing proactive steps in catering operations to keep people safe, and their business free from health and safety dangers. We’ve been pleased to see that concerns around food temperature monitoring are also being addressed.
The cost of not doing so can be fatal, not only in a public health capacity but also to businesses in terms of fines, closures and loss of customers due to damaged reputations. And this is all without considering the exacerbation impact of COVID-19.
Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, public awareness of the importance of hygiene across all aspects of life has heightened. Further still, food production and catering operations are having to adapt to social distancing measures, adding an extra layer of complications when it comes to ensuring food is stored, handled and prepared safely.
Supply chains have also been disrupted by extra COVID-19 protocols, adding to the complexity brought about by the end of the UK’s Brexit transition process. It has been a challenging period that has required remarkable resilience, and time and time again players up and down supply chains have pulled through in testing circumstances.
On the consumer side, the COVID-enforced closure of restaurants and dining out venues has created a larger and more ambitious cohort of at-home cooks. According to the Guild of Fine Food, expenditure on do-it-yourself meal kits and grocery boxes grew by 114% in April 2020 compared with April 2019, while HelloFresh saw revenue between July and September 2020 jump by 120% versus the same period a year earlier.
And the signs are that some of these habits and trends adopted during lockdown living are here to stay, at least if market activity is to be believed. Food manufacturing giant Nestlé bought into the meal kit market at the end of 2020 by buying Freshly for $950 million, its US Chairman Steve Presley stating that the evolution brought about by the pandemic is “taking hold for the long term”.
Grocery shopping habits are also shifting, with supermarkets seeing an explosion in demand for home delivery and click and collect services, a surge which has placed further emphasis on food safety best practice and increased the pressure on supermarket workers.
Knowledge is power – introducing the wireless data logger
So, with consumers paying more attention to food provenance and safety standards than ever before, both in restaurant and home settings, transparency and instant access to data across the farm to fork process has never been more important. Technology is a key enabler of both.
The market for farm to fork technology is growing, especially in the day and age we are currently living in where every minute and every pound count. Companies that can invest in the speed of their operation will reap rewards in a climate which is seeing growing costs to employ people. Technology allows organisations to react faster to situations because of instant access to accurate data.
The cliché of time is money very much applies here – using technology can save time and save the reputation of those companies working in farm to fork.
Regarding food safety, temperature control is critical to ensuring a high quality and safe product is delivered to the consumer’s plate. This is enabled by constant harvesting and monitoring of data, a process which the wireless data logger has mastered. Wireless data loggers are IoT-enabled devices which provide the likes of catering facilities, supermarkets and transporters with the information they need to act immediately should any unforeseen issues arise when it comes to food temperatures.
They transmit data via the cloud which is stored locally on PCs and other devices
The data is passed through a Wi-Fi router to a computer, regardless of where the user is based at that particular time. It then stays locally on a hard drive so the user can access real, live temperature monitoring data wherever they are. This ensures checks are completed correctly, issues are identified, and corrective actions are taken to reduce spoilage.
Wireless data loggers are ideally suited to applications where there are challenges in collecting real-time and recorded data, making them ideal tools for the likes of large retailers and catering enterprises which rely on industrial refrigeration units.
And the benefits of using these devices stretch well beyond the primary safety purpose – from financial gains to quality assurances to waste reduction, the case for adopting these devices is strong.
Looking beyond the human eye
First, let’s consider food quality. The leading cause of food spoilage is the cultivation of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. As these microorganisms multiply, they produce harmful and toxic substances that make food unsafe for human consumption.
At room temperature, bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses can double in number every 20 minutes. This highlights the importance of proper refrigeration. The best way to slow the growth of bacteria is by chilling food at both the right temperature and in an appropriate manner.
Simply setting an advisable temperature is not always adequate. Overpacking, for example, can stem the circulation and flow of cold air in refrigerated rooms and stores, allowing warm spots to emerge where bacteria could flourish.
Vigilance and awareness are, therefore, crucial, but identifying food safety blind spots like these can be a challenge for even the most well-trained eye.
Human error can play a huge part in regard to food safety problems. The food industry is a very busy environment and time critical. Within those organisations, manual processes will get forgotten or side-lined as they’re not deemed the most important at that time of the day.
Let’s use the example of a busy butchers. They need to take fridge and freezer temperatures by law to make sure food is stored correctly. If it’s a busy day, the workers will concentrate on the here and now, dealing with customers – this could easily mean their regimented tasks each day get overlooked, forgotten or, even worse, fraudulently populated with data which could cause harm.
This is where wireless data loggers come in. The level of detail and volume of insight these devices provide stretch far beyond what can be obtained by human endeavours. Air temperatures and core temperatures in refrigeration units can be simultaneously monitored by data loggers in real time. This information can inform early alert systems and proactively flag when temperatures reach the danger zone (universally said to be between four and 60 degrees Celsius) where harmful bacteria multiply most rapidly.
Such insights will ensure organisations stay a step ahead in regard to food safety. Wireless data loggers can be the key to unlocking absolute temperature monitoring; the difference between 99.5% and 100% of produce being kept in a safe, cool environment.
Proactively preventing adverse effects
Indeed, failure to properly maintain temperatures and comply with food safety standards in a holistic manner can lead to a number of detrimental outcomes for all parties involved in the value chain.
Organisations may be subject to significant fines and reputational damages should they sell contaminated produce, while consumers may unknowingly ingest spoiled food that could lead to potentially fatal illnesses and sicknesses. And even if spoiled food is identified prior to this point, disposing of and replacing it both takes time and costs money.
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Plans (HACCP) are the UK government’s legislative criteria to protect food from biological, physical or chemical contamination. HACCP demands improvement and reduced complacency in food safety, for which temperature monitoring is central. Here lie the proactive and preventative qualities of wireless data loggers.
Data loggers do have their own costs which need to be considered. Is additional software required to download and analyse the data? Does it require batteries or electricity? Will upskilling or an external hire be required to properly leverage their benefits?
While these costs may be minimal on a day-to-day basis, they could accumulate over several months or years, which should be accounted for.
That said, the adverse effects and resultant damages of improper food management will be far greater, and wireless data loggers are an extremely effective way of protecting brands, businesses, staff and customers.
In business we often talk about the return on investment. While £100 for a data logger may look like a big expense at the time, the focus should be on how much time your staff or workers spend doing this process day after day.
Data loggers don’t take breaks. They work every day of the year and can free up workers’ time – look at it from this perspective, and a data logger will look inexpensive.
Indeed, businesses which take an average of 15 temperature checks a day could save more than £600 a year by replacing 73 hours of manual labour with an automated wireless data logger.
With fewer mistakes comes less waste
Sustainability and environmental consciousness are additional areas in which these devices can assist. Food is lost and wasted for a variety of reasons. On the consumer side, anything from overbuying to poor planning to confusion over food labels and contents can contribute to binned food. But food can be lost at every point of the supply chain, be it on farms or fishing boats, during processing and distribution, in retail, in restaurants, or in the home.
One third of all food produced for human consumption globally is not eaten. In other words, 1.3 billion tonnes, or £800 billion, of food is wasted annually.
This is a huge problem. Climate change, the increasing cost of living and rising world populations dictate that it has never been more important to live sustainably, and the proper management of food from farm to fork has a critical role to play in achieving this.
So, how can wireless data loggers help?
Primarily, by eliminating human error from food management processes and doing the heavy lifting when it comes tracking safe food storage. Simply put, with less mistakes comes less waste.
Keeping supply chains COVID-secure
The heavy lifting capabilities of wireless data loggers also have positive implications in the current COVID-19 context.
The pandemic has become an obstruction to our modus operandi, both in terms of personal and professional life, and food-centric supply chains are no different.
The supply of food remains essential – people need to eat. Yet ensuring we are able to put meals on our plates has become all the more complicated.
Policies adopted to contain the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in farm labour, processing, transport and logistical bottlenecks. At the same time, demands have spiked and shifted – from stockpiling and panic buying to the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ initiative – as we have drifted in and out of various lockdowns.
The need for social distancing has been at the centre of this ‘new normal’ at home and in the workplace, a new challenge that can also be tackled using wireless data loggers. By taking on large portions of temperature monitoring protocols automatically, this solution limits the amount of human-to-human contact that would otherwise be required.
For organisations, upholding social distancing is crucial. Not only can wireless data loggers help to keep their own people safe in this way, they can also prevent the spread of the virus throughout essential food supply lines.
COVID-19 has placed unprecedented strains on healthcare systems, so both reducing the spread of the virus and avoiding food-related illnesses where possible has never been more important.
Indeed, the challenges brought about by the pandemic are here to stay, at least for the short to medium term. And up and the down the food supply chain, added complications will continue to present themselves as companies adapt to new post-Brexit protocols.
The response to date has been impressive, and long may this continue. We have an incredibly robust UK supply chain which is something we should all be proud of.
The Port of Dover ‘crisis’ saw the entire supply chain pull together to ensure we came out on the other side. Yes, we had a few problems, like drivers switching off engines which led to temperatures rising with some foods such as iceberg lettuce. However, if this is the only issue we encountered from the port delays, then I think we’ve done pretty well.
Case study: Powering productivity at Piglet’s Pantry
Piglet’s Pantry supplies 50,000 baked goods per week to sports stadiums, entertainment venues and leading luxury brands. Priding itself on quality across the board, Piglet’s only uses the finest locally sourced ingredients to produce incredible tasting pies on a robust and efficient production line.
Temperature checking is a critical part of maintaining high safety and quality standards at Piglet’s. Critical control points (CCPs) are monitored every step of the way – goods delivery, walk in fridges, walk in freezers, ovens, blast chillers and its own delivery vans. At events there are also ovens and hot holding areas which must be routinely checked.
Piglet’s implemented a system made by ETI when it moved into a new premises, a move which has delivered benefits across key areas, including:
Staff costs: Saving time on filling out paperwork, Piglet’s estimates savings equivalent to two staff salaries every month.
Product waste: Temperature alerts can be dealt with quickly with little downtime, meaning products are kept safe and do not need to be destroyed.
Fast quality control: Enables faster checking of food at events venues, helping to maintain consistent temperatures and quality.
Additionally, as sports stadiums abruptly closed in March 2020, Piglet’s then had to revert to a new delivery style model. We supported this by supplying wireless loggers to track the temperature throughout the delivery process. The results came back this with success as the products were still within the temperature range required. Entering new territory, this gave Piglet’s confidence that it had found the right packaging solution to send its products nationwide.
More on the Piglet’s Pantry story can be found at: www.temperature.co.uk/interview-baking-pies-with-piglets-pantry