As retailers and manufacturers work to ensure the safety of the food supply, pallets, shelving and sanitation systems take on prominent roles.
A lot can happen to meat, dairy, produce and groceries on the trip from the manufacturing plant or field to the grocery store. Even with today’s sophisticated food safety techniques, E. coli, listeria and other potentially harmful organisms can easily make their way into a crop of spinach or a batch of baby food.
“The last few years the flurry of recalls that have occurred has raised the consciousness of the public, retailers and suppliers,” says Rex Lowe, president of Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS), an Orlando, Fla.-based operator of a rental service for recyclable plastic pallets.
While many retailers’ and manufacturers’ budgets remain barebones, they continue to invest in equipment that can bolster the safety of the food supply. On the front line of defense is the ubiquitous pallet, used to store, ship and display almost anything found in the grocery store. Some grocers, growers and manufacturers are also looking at best practices in other industries to enhance their food safety initiatives, say industry observers.
“The food industry is employing a number of techniques from the pharmaceutical industry in the effort to further enhance food safety,” says Paul Pederson, director of food safety for IFCO Systems, a Tampa, Fla.-based logistics provider that operates a pool of reusable plastic containers (RPC).
The company recently opened a new RPC service center in Portland, Ore. to support the expanded use of RPCs by grocery retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada, say company officials. The new facility is IFCO’s fifth U.S. service center. Pederson adds that IFCO is investing in new equipment for cleaning and sanitizing pallets. The system uses centrifugal force for drying and complex sanitizers to ensure the highest standard possible for food safety, he says.
Observers say reusable plastic pallets are being adopted as replacements for traditional cardboard containers because they are hydrophobic, meaning that they do not absorb water or harbor bacteria. Other reasons for the rising popularity of RPCs are that they can incorporate tracking devices and they are sustainable.
A benefit in outfitting pallets with tracking devices is the ability to monitor the temperatures and other vital signs throughout their journey. “It is really all about cold chain security,” says Trent Overholt, vice president of Rehrig Pacific Co., a Los Angeles-based provider of reusable transport packaging, including pallets, crates and containers. “The fresh produce may look fine when it arrives, but there may have been a few hours in transit when it was out of the desired temperature range. It may not be obvious to the receiver, but can have an impact on food safety as well as shelf life.”
The monitoring devices can sound an early alarm if there is an issue that may impact food safety or shelf life, observers say. “It is estimated that 30% to 40% of all produce never makes it to the shelf,” says iGPS’s Lowe. “Our containers are able to house a variety of technologies, including RFID tags and barcodes to track truckloads and help improve those numbers. There have been huge advancements in battery life in RFID tags, so it is possible to monitor conditions every 15 minutes, even on long hauls.”
Observers say that as produce growers, shippers and retailers embrace alternatives to the traditional cardboard box; temperature monitoring will become even more widespread.
“On a practical level, it doesn’t make sense to put a $1 tracking tag on a cardboard box that costs 50 cents and is going to be either in a landfill or recycled/remanufactured after just one use,” Overholt says. “A typical RPC gets used five or six times a year for five years or longer, so that $1 is amortized over 30 or more uses and the cost of the tracking data becomes a few pennies per trip.”
RFID tags, barcodes and other technology can also pinpoint the source of a problem in the event of a recall, say observers. “If the source can be identified to a particular day or region, for example, the recall can be targeted,” Lowe says, rather than having to take all the lettuce or spinach from the shelves because it could not be traced to the source.
The tags can monitor issues such as humidity, light and shock as well, which can all impact the quality and safety of perishable items, say observers.
Since the scanning equipment needs to be used in growing fields, manufacturing plants, warehouses and other tough environments, it has to be rugged, say observers. “The scanners have to be able to withstand water, cold and other harsh environments,” says Mike Wills, vice president, North America for Psion, a Hebron, Ky.-based manufacturer of rugged mobile computer equipment. Psion’s equipment is used by Seattle-based Ocean Beauty Seafood, which distributes millions of pounds each year of canned, smoked, frozen and fresh seafood to manufacturers, restaurants and grocers.
Among Psion partners is Redmond, Wash.-based software firm Dynamic Systems. “Each lot is tracked from location to location so that they know where each lot of fish was stored, what container it shipped in and who it was shipped to,” says Alison Falco, president of Dynamic Systems.
Power outages, particularly during storms, also pose a threat to a retailer’s food supply. While retailers have often relied on generators to keep the stores open and the cash registers ringing during an outage, many are now taking refrigeration into consideration when making the investment in backup power, say observers.
“In the past, a primary function of backup power in a retail environment was to keep the cash registers functioning,” says John Sharpe, power solutions manager for Generac Power Systems, a Waukesha, Wis.-based manufacturer of backup power solutions.
Sharpe says that systems have become more scalable, making it affordable for a wide range of retailers. The company offers backup power systems in a number of sizes that run on natural gas, diesel and propane. “A supermarket could loose as much as $100,000 in inventory, so it is really a protection of that investment,” he says, adding that the risk of having unsafe food on the shelves can result in illness or even death and can cause untold damage to a retailer’s reputation.
Keeping refrigerators powered up is only half the battle. Observers say that refrigerators are also one of the most difficult areas in the store to clean. “Working with our sister company [Conyers, Ga.-based refrigerated display manufacturer] Hill Phoenix, we have developed a set of tools that works with our Integrated Cleaning System (ICS) battery-powered, mobile, self-contained cleaning system to clean refrigerated cases,” says David A. Ratajczak, director of strategic channel development for Cincinnati-based Hydro Systems Co. The company produces equipment for a wide range of cleaning and sanitizing functions.
Traditionally the way to clean refrigerated cases is by hosing down the inside. This can be a messy process that often does not sanitize the case and can result in food particles clogging the drains. “Our ICS can save in time, labor, water and chemicals,” says Ratajczak. With the specialized tools for cleaning refrigerated cases, a 12-foot case can be cleaned with three gallons of water, helping retailers meet requirements for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, he adds. Hydro Systems’ products can also be used to accurately dilute and dispense concentrated chemicals so that they can be safely and effectively used for commercial cleaning and other applications.
Shelving on the sales floor and in the back room can also be difficult to clean, say observers. To address this issue, InterMetro Industries is introducing an anti-microbial mat for its wire shelving.
“One of our goals is to improve food safety at the store level,” says Terry Kevett, marketing manager for the Wilkes-Barre, Pa.-based InterMetro Industries, owner of the Metro brand of shelving and a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Emerson. “Our new Super Erecta Pro has polymer shelf mats that can easily be washed in a utility sink or in a dishwashing machine.” He says that the mats and the epoxy used in the shelf construction are infused with Microban, an anti-microbial material.
“This is an area of food safety that hasn’t gotten much attention in the past, but retailers are now looking for areas where they can invest that will improve the processes and the safety of the food supply and we see this trend continuing,” Kevett says.