Wireless Technology for Food Safety Monitoring
By Martin Nash, Ph.D.
As has been reported previously in Food Safety Magazine, progress of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has been far from speedy and much of the detail is still to be clarified. But one thing is clear—the shift of focus from one of reaction to prevention of food safety problems.
As a result, increased importance is being placed on monitoring, record keeping, traceability and verification. For example, instead of relying solely on periodic visits from state or federal inspectors, food businesses will be responsible for understanding potential risks and developing science-based measures to control those risks before a problem actually occurs.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will also be seeking better ways to gain access to an organization’s records prior to an inspection. This will not only give FDA a “heads up” on any potential issues, but also allow them to gain a more comprehensive view of the operation than they may get on inspection. These proposed preventive controls and need for better record keeping will put more emphasis on existing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) processes and try build on current best practices. For something that started life in the 1960s as a food safety program developed for astronauts and space travel, HACCP has done pretty well. It is now recognized as a national and international standard for food production and the World Health Organization (WHO) has adopted it as the most effective means for ensuring food safety.
HAACP is specifically referenced in FSMA with regards to establishing a system of preventative controls that include a series of checks and procedures at sensitive points in the food chain. Many companies already have HACCP plans in place, but FSMA goes further and will also require a preventive control plan with HACCP elements. These include hazard prevention, sanitation and hygiene documentation and training, environmental monitoring and food allergen control.
Two of the main causes of foodborne illness addressed by HACCP are poor hygiene processes and inadequate temperature control when storing and serving raw and cooked products. For most restaurants, food producers and other foodservice outlets, food safety monitoring has traditionally involved manually checking food storage conditions, including temperature and humidity as well as recording the temperature of supplied and prepared foods and the completion of food hygiene checks. These checks are typically performed at regular 3- to 4-hour intervals each and every day.
One of the problems is that this work is often carried out by employees who may be inadequately trained in food hygiene, whereas a high turnover of staff and inexperienced managers, combined with the constant pressure to reduce costs, can lead to corners being cut. In a typical restaurant for example, it can take over an hour for sous chefs or line cooks to complete manual line and quality checks and to complete the necessary paper-based reports.
However, help is at hand and technology now offers an alternative to time-consuming, paper-based HACCP processes. A new generation of smart wireless sensor-based systems can be used in refrigerators and other food preparation and holding areas to provide continuous automated 24/7 monitoring and recording of temperature, humidity and door status. Associated wireless handheld devices can also be used to collect food temperature and hygiene check data at the press of a button, dramatically speeding up the process and reducing the risk of human error. With FSMA requiring food manufacturers and food outlets to verify that their suppliers are providing them with safe materials and ingredients, this lets staff quickly measure and record the temperature of bought in goods and automatically create a detailed record for future inspections or investigations.
All logged data from the fixed and handheld sensors is user-authenticated, time-stamped and downloaded wirelessly to a centralized PC-based system and stored in a secure database, which can automatically generate food safety compliance reports, along with a full audit trailin case of site inspections or future investigations. In addition to automating the process of food safety monitoring, wireless technology can be used to send alarms to a PC, tablet or smartphone, providing immediate notification if there is a problem with cold storage and food temperatures to ensure food safety and to prevent costly food spoilage in the event of equipment failure
With details of operational HACCP plans and test routines entered into the PC software, the system can also send alerts if individual checks are overlooked or if corrective actions have not been carried out and logged, following the detection of a problem. And if each member of staff has a unique PIN to log in and perform checks, the system also makes them more accountable and more likely to follow the correct procedures.
One of the other benefits of wireless technology is that it is inherently flexible and can be scaled from a single local site through to multi-site operations, using web-based software to configure, monitor and manage the complete network from onelocation. With increasing cost pressures, competition and compliance demands, restaurants and foodservice businesses can’t afford to take risks with their food safety monitoring. A faulty refrigerator may result in thousands of dollars of food spoilage, while a foodborne illness or failure to meet HACCP requirements will damage reputations and lead to costly litigation.
There is really no way to manage all this without an automated food safety management system. It provides all the key processes to help maintain a food safety system, it provides the record keeping components for visibility into your organization and it allows you to be able to adapt to any changes in regulation. Wireless technology will not eliminate the problems but can make a major contribution to mitigating the risks while also saving time and money. While we wait to see the full impact of FSMA, businesses would do well to make preparations and explore the benefits that wireless food safety monitoring can offer.
Martin Nash, Ph.D., is product manager at Elektron Technology. For more information, please visit www.checkit.net.