The food safety of food tech: An expert’s pre-purchase checklists


The onslaught of AI-equipped and robotic food service technology is quickening as we slide the final hill toward the end of 2019. Just in the last month or so, readers of this website were introduced to the industry’s first pizza-making assembly line, while sister site, QSRweb, reported on a salad-making robot that mixes and serves fresh combos in mere seconds.

And all the while, many pizza operators are likely standing by wondering about one very specific and very critical concern with these devices: How are they equipped to maintain absolute food safety?

We wondered too, so we went to food safety technology and service provider, Steritech, to talk to food service and food manufacturing food safety expert, Paula Herald. She’s a technical consultant at the company’s educational arm, The Steritech Institute, with 20 years of experience in food safety and helping companies build successful quality assurance programs. She also holds a doctorate in Food Science and Nutrition as well as a master’s and bachelor’s degrees in Food Technology and Science.

Herald said just across the restaurant brands Steritech works with, there are some definite trends in the types of AI-driven machines and technology they are now employing. She said some of the most prominent types of automated and even robotic technology restaurant brands are most commonly using now are:

  • Labeling machines to designate the shelf-life of house-made products and rotation of dry storage inventory. 
  • Frozen yogurt machines to prepare, mix and dispense these products.
  • Electronic, automated cone slicers for the preparation of gyros/shawarma.
  • Pre-programmed temperature-monitoring and checklist devices. 
  • Automated pita bread machines to package bread for service lines.

Q:What are leaders at these brands that use automation and robotics most concerned about in keeping both their food and their workers safe?
A: (They’re most concerned about the) information that is needed to be programmed into automated equipment is important for proper operation. The wrong date, time, recipe … or incorrect calibration can make the automated equipment perform incorrectly. 

Additionally, extra training/certification for employees to operate equipment is crucial. This is especially true for equipment with blades (or) knives or areas that can cut, trap, smash (or) burn employees.    

There also needs to be a backup plan for when automated equipment goes down. When human staff calls out, you can call in other employees, but automated systems may not allow for humans to fill in. If you have invested in automation, you may no longer have a trained staff to call in as backup. 

Q: Pizza Marketplace recently covered a northwestern U.S. pizza brand that will use an automated pizza assembly line, while sister site, QSRweb reported on a southeastern U.S. brand that’s expanding through the use of a salad-making robot. Both devices use ingredient hoppers, so what kinds of food safety issues do you anticipate or have you seen with these, and do you find that the creators of such technology have typically built these safeguards into their systems? 
A: A few issues The Steritech Institute has seen on this front would be:

  • Not having personnel with adequate technical knowledge to repair or reset robotics in a timely manner if they malfunction.
  • No visual oversight of uncontrollable cross-contamination ([including]foreign object introduction from facility such as condensation, leaks, glass breakage, splash/drippings from raw proteins in use other places (and) dirty equipment/pans.
  • Temperature control/monitoring if temperature sensitive products are being mass-produced, or controls being accidentally changed resulting in waste or inadequate portioning (that is) dispensed prior to reaching proper temperature.   

Q: What would you recommend that a restaurant operator insist on and/or look for when using automation to handle or store food?
Recommendations would include:

  • Making sure that the health department approves the purchase/use prior to making the investment.
  • Ease of operation, assembly and cleaning and sanitation with approved food contact surfaces. 
  • Technical support from manufacturer.
  • Durability for continuous use in a foodservice environment where there might be lots of exposure to moisture, heat, etc.
  • Replace parts before they start problems- always have a preventative maintenance program in place. 
  • Appropriate use of limited space when in use or storage.

Q: What issues — related to these systems and machines — do you see or anticipate with restaurant staff around adequate cleaning procedures, particularly with respect to proper training and compliance?   
Any use of automated equipment would require training on the proper use and safety considerations of employees to prevent injury or damage to equipment. Also, it might be advised to have only specified, trained employees be able to work with this equipment. 

If automated equipment has intricate parts, cleaning and sanitation are a concern as well as protecting the electronics from moisture or corrosive cleaning solutions. For example, a frozen yogurt or soft-serve machine has various regulatory requirements, with respect to frequency of sanitizing, so adherence to the regulations will need to override any manufacturer’s preset cycles for cleaning and sanitation.


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