The Cold, Hard Facts About Refrigeration Equipment
The most frequently encountered U.S. Food and Drug and Administration (FDA) Food Code violation found by sanitarians during inspections and audits is temperature abuse. This is primarily encountered on the refrigeration side, handwashing notwithstanding. In my recent experiences, I learned that cold holding temperature abuse conditions do not arise so much from operational issues that are easily correctable, such as pre-chilling ingredients before assembling salads or placing hot foods in shallow pans for cooling. Rather, these issues arise from the use of inappropriate refrigeration equipment. For example, it is not unusual for us to find beverage coolers used to maintain the temperature of potentially hazardous foods or display refrigerators used as blast chillers.
While the FDA Food Code details the temperature and the length of time foods can be maintained in refrigeration (as well as out-of-refrigeration), it does not specify the type of refrigerator required to do so. The one time this question is routinely raised is during the plan review process. But conditions and business practices change over time and the refrigeration equipment that was appropriate when the facility was first opened may not be appropriate now.
The application and use of refrigeration equipment has certainly been implicated as a contributing factor in several recent foodborne illness outbreaks with which I have had some involvement as a consultant. It dawned on me that information on refrigeration equipment is not readily available, except through equipment manufacturers and standard-setting organizations such as NSF International. I must admit, as a regulator, my concern is focused on time and temperature compliance and assuring that thermometers are properly placed in each unit; not so much with the type of equipment used. Therefore, I ask you to bear with me while I broach this topic as an introduction to the various types of refrigeration equipment and their proper use in an effort to provide some solutions to cold holding temperature abuses that can be avoided in your operation.
The Low-Down on the Cool-Down
Before mechanical refrigeration systems were invented, people cooled their food in springs or with ice and snow. This was the only means of refrigeration for most of history, and we still use it regularly in display and service. In the past, perishable foods were kept in cool cellars or in buckets lowered into wells. The first cold cellars were holes dug into the ground, lined with wood or straw and packed with snow. A device still used in some areas is a room built with porous walls over which water trickles; as the water evaporates the room is cooled. In visiting historical houses, it’s no small wonder that a spring of cold water often determined its location on the property. A springhouse was usually built over the flowing water that was led through troughs in which crocks of food were placed to keep them cool. In winter, ice was stored in icehouses for use in the summer. Similarly, natural ice from commercial icehouses was used in cities until artificial methods of producing ice were initiated in the middle of the nineteenth century. In fact, growing up in the Big Apple, I remember my folks using an icebox until after WWII when consumer goods again became readily available.