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The Case for Using IoT to Monitor Food Safety

Learn how convenience stores can protect their biggest revenue drivers by ensuring compliance and eliminating human error associated with collecting temperature data.

The Case for Using IoT to Monitor Food Safety

It’s no secret that self-serve and prepared food items are the top revenue producers in c-stores. It is commonly understood that gas prices get feet in the door, but the food items in the store are what pay the bills. Offering food of any kind, prepared or not, comes with a great responsibility: maintaining health code and food safety compliance according to HACCP principles and application guidelines. 

For most convenience store owners and operators, the most commonly accepted practice for ensuring compliance is a basic system involving visual inspections by employees recorded onto clipboards and later logged. There are two major flaws with this type of system: time and human error. This is an inefficient practice that takes up time that could be better utilized serving customers and enhancing the overall customer experience. In addition, manual temperature logging leaves the safety of your food products subject to human error.

In order to better understand how to more effectively manage food safety, particularly in open-air cooler systems, let’s look at how these systems actually work.

How Open Air Cooler Systems Work

Cold air is heavier than warm/hot air. When a standard refrigerator door is opened, the column of cold air “falls out” from the bottom of the opening creating a vacuum that allows warm/hot air to be sucked in to the upper area of the fridge. This causes the compressor to cycle on in order to evacuate the newly introduced warm/hot air in order to replace it with cold air.

Open air coolers use “air curtains”. Vents along the top lining of the open-air cooler blow cold air in all directions, effectively sealing in the colder, denser air. The design of these coolers are quite intentional as, again, cold air is heavier and, therefore, sinks to the bottom. While this design is more convenient for on-the-go consumers, it is not without its flaws. The system is largely dependent on ideal environmental conditions for optimal operation. If an open air cooler is within proximity to a regularly opened door, for example, the constant airflow from the opened door will present a constant disruption to the “air curtain” effect. This becomes more prevalent with multi-tier open-air coolers where the air curtain is vertical as opposed to horizontal. Suffice it to say, a “successful” c-store will have its doors being constantly opened. 

Merchandising & The Danger Zone

Besides consumer convenience, another reason open-air coolers are such an attractive option for c-store owners is their merchandising abilities. Open displays are more visually appealing, allowing merchandise to be deliberately placed according to plan-o-grams and market demand. An obvious compliment to merchandising is lighting. Modern open-air coolers contain LED lights which produce light with less energy, thus producing less heat. Heat is still a factor and will cause variations in surface temperature within the open-air coolers. 

On the topic of modern day options, the life expectancy of an open-air cooler is generally in the 10-year range. This number will vary based on the performance of individual components but it is a safe assumption that the air-curtain feature will have suffered some degradation over the course of a decade. With brand new open-air coolers running in the $5,000-$10,000, it is understandable why c-store owners would keep their current units up to and beyond their anticipated life expectancy. 
In any cooling system, the catalyst that determines whether the compressor kicks on is the thermostat. Anyone who lives in a two-story home can tell you that a single thermostat is never the full story. While the first floor is frosty, the second story is usually much warmer (remember: cold air is heavier which is why heat rises). Now imagine this two-story house is your open-air cooler. The food on the first floor might be fine and maintained at an ideal 40°, but the food upstairs will be living in an environment 5°-15° warmer, situated right in the Danger Zone.

Before we go any further, let’s recap a few key points:

  1. Cold air is denser than warm air
  2. Open-air coolers use “air curtains” to trap cold air 
  3. Lighting- no matter the type- produces heat
  4. Acceptable temperatures for prepared food are: <40° for cold food, <0° for frozen food, and >140° for hot food
  5. Life expectancy of proper operation of an open-air cooler is around 10 years
  6. Thermostats can only tell part of the storyManual temperature logging offers no actionable data or mitigation strategy, is prone to error and is a time sucker

According to CS Decisions:

“Eliminating pen and paper line checks can save $250-$600 per year per store, smart sensors that prevent food spoilage can save $1,100 per episode, and reducing food and labor costs can save $4,700 per year per store, according to a recent CoInspect survey. Further, CoInspect experts said the ROI on in-store technical solutions can be as high as $10,000-$15,000 per year for c-stores with foodservice capabilities.”

Leveraging modern IoT (Internet of Things) tech, c-store owners can now remove visual cooler inspections from their employees’ job descriptions and gain true insight into the actual temperature of open-air coolers in all zones, not just based on what the thermostat readout is. Having access to data where you can see if your coolers are operating outside the acceptable range for longer than an acceptable amount of time would help you in determining if it really is time for your out-of-warranty cooler to be replaced. It will also allow you to move your food to another cooler location before it spoils and costs you thousands of dollars. 

Removing the human element from temperature logging guarantees accuracy and satisfies logging requirements for HACCP compliance purposes. While the focus of this article has been on the inefficiencies of open-air coolers, the very same sensors are equally usable in closed-door refrigerators, and heated environments such as food rollers and steam tables. 

This article was featured in Texas Food & Fuel Magazine on April 1, 2019. Read the published article here.

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