How Sharpening Food Safety Practices with IoT Technology can Reduce Foodborne Illness
By John Colbert
The method of using traditional manual oversight to enforce food safety policies is destined for the history books. Restaurant corporations, owners, franchisees, and general managers have long been enforcing food safety policies through the internal leadership structure. That approach is challenged, however, by high employee turnover rates, ineffective line-level supervisors, dry-labbing (employees plugging in fake results), rush times, and willful disobedience (employees that only comply if directly supervised). By implementing new technology, some restaurant leaders are taking the bull by the horns to keep a better eye on their food safety practices.
Advancements in Internet of Things (IoT) technology have become available that substantially improve food safety oversight, ultimately resulting in higher levels of compliance with more accurate and reliable results. The enhancement occurs because technology can watch over things that would be impossible to supervise otherwise. The technology essentially puts in place full-time and after-hours supervision over key food safety control points. To further exemplify this point, key case study findings are discussed in the areas of hygiene, dry-labbing, mistakes, and equipment failures.
In the first example, Digital Six Laboratories (D6 Labs) installed IoT technology in a well-known restaurant where management was sure that employees were already in good compliance with their internal handwashing policies. On the first full day of use after implementation, it was revealed that the hand soap dispensers were used collectively only four times across three hand soap dispensers, despite the daily tracking system being properly completed by all employees and line supervisors. By 1 p.m. the next day, only two soap uses were detected; thus, senior management informed line-supervisors and staff that handwashing was being tracked. By the end of that day, the hand soap usage grew to 111 uses. The average run rate is now about 270 uses per day.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, handwashing is a critical component in preventing the spread of certain pathogens such as Salmonella or Cyclospora. By using the FoodSafe.io™ technology, hand soap usage for this restaurant improved from roughly 10 uses per day (about five washes) to a confirmed rate of over 250 uses per day (about 125 washes), a dramatic improvement in food safety for that restaurant.
While handwashing is clearly a Critical Control Point for food safety, most restaurant managers would probably agree that cold storage and cooking temperatures are most vital to ensuring safe food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, the “Danger Zone” for bacteria is between 40 °F and 140 °F, wherein bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus, can double in just 20 minutes. Stored food should be kept at temperatures below 40 °F and cooked food, after being cooked to a safe temperature, should be kept at temperatures above 140 °F until served. The difficulty is manually keeping track of cold storage, cooked food, and food warmer temperatures. Management needs to know that freezers and refrigerators are working properly, that employees are properly testing cooked food, and that food warmers are doing their jobs effectively, which is a lot to account for while trying to get high-quality food delivered in a timely fashion.
D6 Labs technology has helped restaurants with several refrigerator-related issues, such as employees accidentally turning off refrigerators. Commercial refrigerators used by restaurants generally have a rapid cooling cycle, meaning that when the compressor kicks on, a steep graphical downward curve is represented in the data showing the fridge cooling quickly over time.
In this next example, a fridge compressor began to fail. After warming to an unsafe temperature, 45 °F + 5 °F, the fridge would take 4 to 5 hours to get back to a safe range—the curve was not steep, but rather long and smooth. The problem was that the food was still generally cool to the touch, so the food didn’t trigger any concern from employees, and after the fridge sat all night unused, it was cold by morning, so it passed start-up inspections. Without technology, this problem would go undetected until the fridge outright failed, which could take a good deal of time. Also, the fridge would draw a substantial amount of additional current, thus costing the owner more in energy bills. With the Foodsafe.io technology, this problem was quickly detected, allowing management to move food from the device until it could be serviced. Crisis avoided.
Food safety checks are, without question, a distraction from other duties, which can create a desire to punch in numbers, rather than do the actual tests—often referred to as dry-labbing or pencil whipping. After a small amount of rationalization, and a few times of getting away with it, dry-labbing becomes the norm.
With technology, risky nuances in how food safety checks, such as—Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-related startup checks or routine food safety or food quality inspections—are conducted can be identified and remedied. For instance, immediately after the implementation of a software-driven process that guides employees through certain aspects of food safety testing processes—a feature of D6 Labs’ FoodSafe.io technology—the personnel who normally do these daily tests were trained on how to use the software. The names of the devices to check were entered into the software; thus, the software would prompt the user to, say, obtain a temperature reading from refrigerator X. Interestingly, in this case, the person who had been performing these daily inspections could not find the devices by name, which then begs the question as to how the person was able to write in the temperatures on the written log. It was easy for the person to walk around the facility giving the appearance of performing the checks, but the checks were not legitimately completed.
Another Critical Control Point for many quick-serve and dine-in restaurants is confirming that cooked food is reaching a safe temperature. Sometimes, when a cooked food test is due, it is passed over because of a customer rush.
On one occasion, just after installing technology that drives and monitors required cooked food testing, it was revealed that even though a manual test had just been logged, the meat was actually below safe temperatures. It was clear that the employee had simply entered numbers in the log rather than rightfully performing the test. Such dry-labbing of results leaves equipment improperly adjusted and cooking practices unaltered. The discussed foodsafe.io technology can solve problems like this by requiring the tests to be completed, guiding employees through the tests, and alerting management if they are not performed on time.
Keeping the ever-renewing employee base properly trained and effective in food safety practices is a continuous management challenge that can now be effectively mitigated through IoT technology. With good technology in place, managers’ oversight reach is expanded as technology monitors situations and alerts on problems. By adding the effective business metric of quantifiable measurement to food safety activities, restaurant leaders can now continuously access and improve their food safety environment to the benefit of everyone: what gets measured gets done.
John Colbert is the chairman of the board and executive chair of Digital Six Laboratories, Inc. John has experience working as a public company CEO and serving on corporate boards. His expertise spans the technology industry from hardware to software with a current focus on technology impacting the restaurant industry and food safety.