Americans love to dine out. In fact, more than one-third of U.S. diners eat at a fast-food restaurant every day, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington, D.C. Over 60% of Americans have dinner at a restaurant at least once a week, as outlined in this poll from Gallup, Washington, D.C. And, in recent decades, this trend shows no signs of slowing down. At the same time, consumers are becoming increasingly discriminating about what they eat — seeking the freshest, healthiest foods in greater varieties than ever before.

Whether you’re a convenience store operator, quick-service retailer (QSR), fast-casual or fine dining restaurant, ensuring food quality and safety is imperative to your success.

Improvements in refrigeration equipment and the advent of technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) provide more reliable and consistent temperature control within the cold chain. Throughout food’s journey, operators at each point are now able to monitor, control and track a variety of conditions necessary for preserving food quality, including temperature, humidity, the presence of ripening agents, lighting and more.

As a result, foodservice operators now have an abundance of information with which to validate and help ensure the safety and quality of the food they serve.

Consumer and regulatory expectations raise the stakes

Modern restaurants and c-stores are held to increasingly higher food safety and quality standards. Consumers and regulators alike are demanding greater transparency in the food supply chain and improved traceability of food’s journey from farm to fork. To succeed in this environment, operators must employ the best practices needed to consistently deliver safe, high-quality food offerings.

Providing consistent food quality is essential to keeping customers coming back. Protecting against foodborne illness outbreaks helps to not only ensure your customers’ well-being, but it also guards against potentially devastating impacts to your brand reputation and bottom-line profitability.

But, since restaurants are the last stop in the food supply chain, how can operators ensure that food is safe on receipt? And, how can they establish and adhere to safe food storage and handling practices in their kitchens?

It starts with understanding everything that contributes to food quality and safety throughout the cold chain. With today’s connected IoT monitoring and tracking infrastructures, operators now have better visibility into each step of the journey and even the possibility for comprehensive cold chain traceability. Then, once food has been received and moved into inventory, this process continues by applying all the modern tools available to ensure food quality, safety and consistency all the way to the point at which it’s served to customers.

Achieving food supply chain safety is cumulative

Regardless of season or geographic location, consumers demand an increasing variety of fresh produce throughout the calendar year. In particular, Millennials are keenly aware of what they are eating and seek high-quality, sometimes exotic food varieties, which may even dictate special handling requirements and potentially increase the possibility of foodborne illness outbreaks. It’s estimated that nearly half of the fresh fruit and one-third of the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States are sourced from foreign countries. 

Achieving this feat can require fresh produce to be transported by land, sea and air in a process that can span the point of harvest, processing, cold storage and distribution — all before it even begins the last-mile delivery to a restaurant. For domestic points of origin, it can take 3-4 days to transport strawberries from California to the East Coast. Overseas shipments can last anywhere from 2-4 weeks, whether sourcing bananas from Guatemala or dragon fruit from Vietnam.

It’s staggering to realize that there can potentially be as many as 20-30 individual steps and multiple changes of ownership throughout this process. The more these perishable items change hands, or are staged, loaded and unloaded, the greater the chances for contamination and temperature excursions along the way.

Understanding the cold chain journey

Delivering on the promise of consistently safe and exceptional food offerings requires an interdependent supply chain, one that shares the concerns and responsibilities of moving food from the point of harvest to consumers in a safe, consistent and economic way. While the pressure may be felt most at the points where food is sold or consumed, restaurants depend on their cold chain suppliers to collect, share and report on the handling practices that help keep food safe and fresh throughout its journey from farm to fork.

Harvest and processing. The cold chain journey begins at the moment of harvest. The time of day is among growers’ first considerations in preserving produce closest to its desired temperature, and this is also the point at which the decay process can start. For example, strawberries picked during the heat of the afternoon can respirate and radiate heat — both of which can adversely affect product shelf life and quality, especially considering that this is only in the first step of a long and complex journey.

Processors attempt to halt the decay process by controlling temperatures and the produce’s transient environment post-harvest. They may opt for a flash-cooling/freezing process or move the product into a temporary storage cooler until loading. Pre-cooled shipping containers help to remove excess field heat and may also be injected with a ripening or delayed ripening agent if modified atmosphere is needed. Processors can also measure ethylene gas levels, since it is a natural off-gas that is produced and can accelerate the ripening process.

Cold chain solutions. Temperature recording starts with probing devices that take internal “pulp” temperatures prior to and during the staging and loading processes; temperature monitoring and tracking begin with the activation of devices inside the shipping container. And, so begins the continuous data collection as the container progresses to the next step of its cold chain journey.  

Transport. Depending on the distance between the point of origin and the next destination, the transportation portion of food’s journey can take anywhere from days to weeks — by truck, sea and/or air. There, transport companies attempt to maintain an unbroken chain of temperature certainty and product quality by following a variety of best practices.

During the loading process, pallets are often stacked to promote airflow and then “load locked” into place to prevent shifting and limit excessive vibration during transport. Shipping trucks and containers are equipped with the most reliable, field-tested compression technology that’s able to withstand excess vibration while ensuring that the transport refrigeration systems preserve product at desired temperature ranges. Mixed-load cargos require multiple refrigeration systems to maintain storage temperatures at different ranges within the same shipment.

Cold chain solutions. Independent temperature monitoring, logging and tracking devices provide real-time communications to shipment stakeholders regarding temperature and location conditions of product in-transit. These systems enable remote monitoring and issue alert notifications when there are deviations in temperatures, humidity, modified atmosphere settings and vibration.

Cold storage distribution center. Upon receipt at a cold storage facility, handlers should inspect the product’s condition by checking the pulp temperature with a probing device and verifying temperature data from the logging device. There, HARPC/HACCP plans should confirm temperature at receipt and prior to unloading during at each delivery and distribution point. It is important to remember that simply checking the ambient air of the refrigerated shipping container is not enough. Some carriers have been reported to turn off refrigeration during long journeys to save fuel, and then turn them back on in time to pull down temperatures prior to arrival at their destination.

The next step is to transfer product into cold storage as soon as possible. Many of these facilities have established multiple temperature zones for various perishable items and use a combination of industrial and commercial refrigeration technologies.

Cold chain solutions. These facility operators should also maintain the unbroken chain of temperature certainty with devices that monitor, record and maintain proper temperatures. They also must maintain the desired produce ripeness at specific points in its journey to the consumer, including sometimes utilizing modified atmospheres and monitoring ethylene production to accelerate or delay ripening, as needed. From cold storage, produce is distributed to its final destination at the restaurant.

Best practices in the store and across the enterprise

The moment a shipment is unloaded at a restaurant is the point at which foodservice operators can begin to assert their own controls over food safety and quality. Like the receiving process at the cold storage facility, this starts by checking pulp temperatures and data logs throughout the shipment’s journey per documented HARPC food safety plans.

There can be numerous opportunities for errors during the receiving processes — most notably, leaving the shipment exposed to high ambient temperatures for too long. Thus, transferring perishable product into cold storage coolers and freezers as quickly as possible is imperative. A HARPC plan should also document the refrigeration requirements of fresh and frozen foods, making kitchen refrigeration the foundation for safety and quality once items arrive at a restaurant.

Cold chain solutions. Modern advances in facility and refrigeration controls helps operators maintain proper temperatures, comply with food safety regulations and streamline the management of restaurant operations in individual stores and across multi-site networks. These advanced systems provide real-time access to the critical information retailers need to immediately track, triage and quickly respond to issues related to food safety and quality. Twenty-four/seven, automated temperature monitoring and recording devices help operators eliminate the need for time-consuming manual documentation, access on-demand reporting as needed for food safety compliance purposes and provide historical cold chain data.

Of course, food safety plans should also include processes for monitoring the hot side of the kitchen and food preparation activities. There, temperature-probing devices automate the recording of prepared food temperatures to maintain HARPC compliance and verify safety. These devices also help to ensure consistent food preparation and a positive customer experience, while removing the potential for manual recording inaccuracies. 

Together, these cold- and hot-side practices help to ensure food safety process compliance in individual restaurants and across the enterprise.