Why have supermarkets have been in the headlines so frequently recently?

Cold rooms

From price inflation of the average shopping basket to supply chain issues which have led to shortages of cucumbers and other salad items on the shelves, it is abundantly clear that these businesses are far from straightforward to run.

Take the latest episode around food shortages. It is a topic that has arisen frequently since the covid pandemic sent disruptive shockwaves through supplier networks, the latest problem stemming from adverse weather conditions in prolific food producing countries like Morocco. And while the shortages do indeed highlight the frailties of food security and supply chains, what they also underline is just how important it is to avoid waste.

Currently, food waste in the UK amounts to around 10.2 million tonnes every year, which in monetary terms is worth an eye watering £20 billion. Of this, 1.8 million tonnes come from food manufacture, 1 million from the hospitality sector and 260,000 from retail, with the remainder from households.

In addition, it is estimated that a further 100,000 tonnes of food (equating to 250 million meals a year) is edible and readily available but goes uneaten. Instead, this food is currently sent away for generating energy from waste, anaerobic digestion, or animal feed.

Supermarkets, of course, have their part to play in tackling the food waste problem. Whether that involves providing better education to employees, developing more redistributing schemes or placing some responsibility back into consumers’ hands by removing some of the use by dates on produce, there are many steps being taken already.

The importance of refrigeration best practice

Mastering the basics around refrigeration temperatures is another critical way to prevent food from being spoiled and extending its edible life.

There is also a legal imperative to do so. Supermarkets, as with restaurants and other food and drink service providers and processors, must conduct various food supply process operations within legally set temperature parameters, a reality that makes the ability to measure temperature across different elements of the process essential.

Such monitoring activities will be dictated by a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan and typically includes temperatures relating to delivery, pre-cooking storage, or re-heating. Any supermarket food handlers should therefore be well-informed, with stores adopting suitable measures to protect not only their customers, but also their brand, employees and the wider business. 

HACCP is designed to protect food from biological, physical and chemical food safety hazards by applying controls that prevent direct contamination and cross-contamination. It is important to note that these hazards can be introduced anywhere in the supply chain – from production, to transport, to storage and processing in the retail store.

Among the products most likely to spoil due to incorrect temperature practices are raw animal products such as meat (especially poultry), eggs, fish and shellfish – these all carry microorganisms that are harmful to the consumer. In supermarket stores, surfaces and equipment possess additional hazards to the food, and refrigerators certainly fall into this category.

Dealing with busy and quiet periods

Indeed, one of the most common challenges associated with supermarket refrigeration is maintaining consistent safe temperatures during periods of fluctuating demand.

The pandemic period, which saw stores faced with prolonged instances of high demand, highlighted just how difficult this can be. And although the lockdown era is over, supermarkets still face crunches and pressure points in line with customer buying behaviour, making it a challenge to keep stock levels in refrigerators and cool rooms at constant levels.

Why is this a problem when it comes to temperature safety? Overfilling refrigerators and cool rooms with produce reduces the air flow and can lead to the emergence of hot spots – these are isolated places in the unit where bacteria can flourish. 

They are a problem because, even if you think you have the right temperature set on the dial, the reading is only accurate where the probe is placed. To overcome the issue, retailers must keep a detailed inventory of how much stock needs to be refrigerated and use this to keep storage as consistent as possible.

When issues relating to refrigeration temperature do arise, it is essential that supermarket employees can respond immediately.

Here, real time temperature monitoring capabilities are proving to be extremely valuable. Many supermarkets and food retailers make use of wireless data loggers – these devices transmit data which is stored locally on PCs and other devices used by staff via the cloud, who are able to access real, live temperature monitoring data wherever they are.

This helps to not only run a tight ship that better maintains consistent refrigeration temperatures, but also enables companies to save a tremendous amount of time and money that would otherwise be spent on regular manual checks. What’s more, automating this essential process eliminates the prospect of human error.

Using technology to track live temperatures will ensure refrigerators and cool rooms stay within safe limits. Furthermore, the ability to monitor both air and core temperature in these units enables supermarkets to make use of early alert systems to keep them one step ahead by acting on problems before they develop into serious food spoilage issues.

Energy crunch adds pressure to get it right

Food retailers, as with businesses operating in many other sectors, are also being pressurised to remain cost efficient in light of spiralling energy prices.

Since the Ukraine crisis took off in the early part of 2022, overheads have soared as energy intensive equipment such as refrigerators became significantly more expensive to run. Meanwhile, as well as minimising energy use to avoid higher bills, supermarkets are also following laws to reduce their carbon footprint to zero by 2050.

Alarmingly, according to a report conducted by Imperial College London and Sainsbury’s, a 2°C increase on today’s average UK summer temperature boosts the energy demand for refrigeration by 6%, adding yet more pressure on supermarkets to maintain effective refrigeration regimes. In response, the report aims to help global supermarket businesses reduce their contribution to global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, all while keeping food and drink chilled at safe temperatures for customers.

Indeed, as the research states, any attempts to cut down on energy costs should not come at the sacrifice of maintaining safe refrigeration temperatures.

Health and safety issues are a supermarket’s biggest concern, their primary responsibility being to supply consumers with produce that is safe to eat and drink. The performance of their refrigerators is critical to them achieving this most fundamental of objective – if temperatures are allowed to pass beyond critical limits for a sustained period, the consequences of either having to dispose of spoiled food, or worse, put it on the shelves, can be enormous.

This makes the keeping of consistent stock levels and real-time monitoring of refrigerator and cool room temperatures essential to the success supermarket operations.

 Jason Webb is Managing Director of Electronic Temperature Instruments. 

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