Whether it's peaches from California, pork chops from Minnesota, salmon from Alaska, cheese from Wisconsin or bakery items from New York, the ability to regulate and maintain temperature control from farm to fork is paramount to the wholesomeness of all fresh foods.
Manufacturers and distributors assume responsibility for products prior to delivery to a retailer's warehouse or stores, but supermarket operators take the driver seat from there -- and therein lies a potential problem, said retailers. Controls, more easily managed in a distribution center environment, become more problematic when multiplied over the various units most operators run. Stores spread out across the country make it near impossible for managers to examine a specific unit's adherence to time and temperature mandates.
Retailers told SN technology has made it easier. Today they can turn to automation to ensure that Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point protocols are well-managed at store level. Some are even employing high-tech tools to link entire market areas, giving retailers the ability to take a remote snapshot of a particular unit's operations history.
"Temperature management is a complex issue that cannot be ignored," said Bruce Peterson, senior vice president, Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark. "On one hand, it's great to say you have 50,000 items. But this creates the [requirement] to keep 50,000 products at optimal temperatures."
In handing over inventory to units, it's important that each store be well-versed in precise policies and guidelines, operators agreed.
"Retail is one small part of the process," said Larry Nakata, vice president, Town & Country Markets, Bainbridge Island, Wash. "There are so many critical points. It boils down to respect for the food you sell and respect for your customers. If you can keep product in as good a condition as you can, you can follow through on your beliefs. Better-maintained product also represents less shrink."
Tech tools are being employed to make sure that HACCP measures are being met. Operators SN talked to said that recording the temperature of cases and having an alarm system that warns when temperature ranges have been exceeded are common elements today.
"We have to be ready for HACCP," said a retailer for a Southern chain. "I believe this voluntary system will one day become regulated. If we take the steps now in a methodical fashion, we will have the system in place when regulation comes. But we do not do these measures for compliance; we do them for our customers and we do them for our finances. It gives us a competitive edge. But it takes knowledge and effort."
This retailer's operation maintains prep rooms at below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Cases range from 28 degrees to 32 degrees depending on their contents. When products are received at the store, there is a sign-off sheet. Sensors track product through preparation and into cases, and alert unit directors when cases are not performing and pages service staff when they go out of range.
"Maintaining perishables at cold temperatures certainly enhances quality and adds to the shelf life of the product," said Cas Tryba, food-safety manager, Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass. "New technology such as time-temperature indicators and product-mimicking computer systems will enhance monitoring from supplier to customer."
At Big Y, a variety of tech tools are used to enforce the chain's cold-chain standards. At the warehouse there is a computer alarm system. Portable temperature recorders are used during transportation. Infrared thermometers are used to check each perishables load coming into the store. Handheld computers with a thermocouple probe attached are put to work in stores to check hot and cold temperatures during food processing and display. Throughout the store, Big Y uses monitors to record the temperatures of coolers and refrigerated display cases, which are also equipped with alarms that notify repair technicians and store management when high temperatures are detected.
"A total food-safety management system is needed to ensure food safety and quality," said Tryba. "Our system includes Standard Operating Procedures, Good Retail Practices and HACCP-based principles. The key to this system is employee training. All our perishables managers go through a food-safety training program and are certified through a nationally accepted testing organization."
Running today's retail facility is a complex thing, and technology helps remove the human error element from the cold-chain challenge, said Peterson. Wal-Mart also has an alarm system, used to prompt people when a problem is on the doorstep. It is also centrally monitored with information logged on record.
"We don't rely on personnel to discover problems. While we don't want to eliminate the human involvement, store business is distracting and we want our people involved in customer service," he said.
"Reducing shrink is nice for the products," said Peterson. "But our primary reason for being is for our customers to have a safe experience. Everything we do is designed to maximize the customer's experience. If we do that right, the financial things will take care of themselves."
Many components are capable of failing and causing the alarm to sound on a piece of equipment, according to equipment manufacturers. Retailers should remember that preventative maintenance is the best way to avoid potential problems.
"There can be service problems or a condenser that needs attention," said Steve Willoughby, product line manager, Traulson & Co., Fort Worth, Texas. "Refrigerant can be low or leaking, coils need cleaning or a door can be open. Alarms simply alert retailers so that they can figure out what is wrong. If there is a leak, alarms give store personnel time to get the product out [of the case]. It's really a combination of food safety and shrink that benefits from these systems."
Indeed, retailers are discovering that well-kept products have more eye appeal in the merchandising arena. Better, fresher product boosts sales and provides retailers with reduced shrink levels. Industry statistics show it doesn't take a wide temperature range to harm product integrity. Even a two-degree, higher-than-optimal temperature over a 24-hour period effectively reduces shelf life by one day, research shows.
"We have monitors that record defrosts," said the Southern operator. "Using three coils instead of two allows us to control the defrost spike at 38 degrees."
The product quality differences, he pointed out, occur because of the size and mass of different products sharing the same case space. "Cube steaks and roasts will react differently because of their mass."
Refrigeration engineers have developed modules that act as product to accurately depict the effect temperatures would have on a 2-inch thick steak or a one-quarter-inch steak. The modules also indicate how products are impacted by defrost cycles based on the percentage of water it contains. Studies such as these have told retailers that chicken cases should be kept colder, and "wetter," than red-meat cases.
As a result of these simulated scenarios, many operators have begun installing separate systems, with separate valves, for separate products. The benefit of using these multilevel refrigeration systems can include lower microbiological counts and longer product shelf life. Equipment manufacturers are using microprocessors to optimally control temperatures with less fluctuation. New units are being designed for specific uses.
"You have to think about store design when seeking to manage the cold chain," said Wal-Mart's Peterson. "There is a lot you can do to ensure the supply chain in design. The proximity of the dock to the cooler, the kind of equipment you have to move product, how close the cooler is to the display floor, and the size of hallways each play a crucial role in product movement in stores."
Town & Country Markets' Central Market concept envisioned store temperatures to aid in maintaining product temperatures. Separate temperature zones enabled the air within the produce, fish and meat departments to be kept cooler than the dry grocery, deli and bakery areas. The operator was lucky in that the space the unit occupies was once three separate retail stores, each with their own systems.
The newest Central Market unit has 105 cases, all automated with monitors and alarms, according to Tim Wymer, facility maintenance manager for the six-unit independent. "Sensors allow for us to not only maintain proper temperatures and record maintenance, they help us spot trends as we develop a history on each store. There are a lot of factors that make a system run poorly. The information gleaned helps us through the tougher times."
The independent's central system also allows Wymer to allocate his time. "I can dial into stores while I'm off-site," he said. "Operationally, in-store people are comfortable to let me know there may be a problem and have me dial in to take a look online. We've been able to reduce service contractor calls that way."
Monitoring capabilities of these "smart" appliances bring operational efficiencies to the store level, industry observers noted.
"Better information and reports also help retailers decide which areas to improve first," said Steve Stucky, director of marketing, IR Retail Solutions, St. Louis. "With equipment, operational efficiency is key."
IR Retail Solutions is taking the customary front-end, closed-circuit television monitoring system and applying it to production areas of stores. "Operators can go 'look' at a store from a centralized location," explained Stucky. "From the monitors alert, air stream alarms can be checked to see if the air is blocked because of over-stacking. Cooler doors can be checked to see if they have been left ajar. It's simply a second set of eyes on the store, giving managers better access."
Retailers caution that too much technology -- just as much as too little -- can hinder their programs. Different environments, within and outside stores, have a huge impact on what is going on in the cases. For example, humidity and outside temperatures can impact every unit in a different way.
"We maintain a high-touch environment along with high-tech," said Michael Latham, director, food service, Town & Country Markets. "We replicate a HACCP program and break it down so that all store personnel are comfortable. Then it becomes second nature to them."
The Northwest retailer, while having monitors on cases, has store personnel stay in touch with the merchandise by taking case and product temperatures manually. "We want them to have personal ownership," said Latham. "If they only addressed the case when an alarm goes off, it would be too late."
The day could soon come when retailers operate a "wired" store. Through their trade association, the North American Association of Foodservice Equipment Manufacturers, a group of suppliers is honing a protocol addressing the hardware and software communications issues involved in making the idea of data exchange between various equipment-control devices a reality.
The time is ripe for this move as more manufacturers build fixtures with sophisticated communication components, said Rick Cartwright, manager of electrical engineering, Hobart, Troy, Ohio. "There is a lot of power in technology, if harnessed," he said. "There is information retailers can use to manage a variety of facets of the business and be more cost-effective and efficient with HACCP."
Currently, quick-service restaurants are testing this "online" kitchen where the point-of-sale system feeds data to kitchen equipment over an in-store network.
Cartwright, who has served on the NAFEM committee developing the protocol, said that supermarket operators can learn from the QSR segment's experiences.
"Supermarket chains, like QSR operators, are after better resource management, labor management, asset knowledge and cost controls, including energy. There may be a tendency at first to data overload, but software designers are working to place data into a meaningful context. After all, it's all about using the data to make business more profitable. To achieve that, retailers need simple facts to head off problems and identify solutions."
The system under development simply layers one more piece into the technology tool chest, he added. "Supermarkets already have POS systems. This is just one more piece addressing the production side. Put on the same network, it can be used to manage the process. HACCP is addressed, plus there are other opportunities in inventory control, quality control and preventative maintenance."
One boon to the bakery side of the business could lie in centrally adjusting oven set points. When a new product or menu rolls out across a chain, ovens frequently have to be reprogrammed. According to Cartwright, a "smart" store system could pre-program set points and download them to all equipment.
"That significantly reduces manpower in making the change and reduces the human error factor," he said. "The bulk program gives retailers the ability to change items as often as they wish and change oven set points on the fly."