Micro Market with Minus Forty coolers

Keep cool (literally) during COVID-19; refrigeration and freezer food safety tips

As seen in VendingTimes.com – Refrigeration and freezer food safety tips for micro markets in the COVID-19 era: sanitation, cleaning and maintenance.

We’ve come a long way since COVID-19 became our new reality months ago. Prevention is now at the top of everyone’s minds, and planning has replaced the panic throughout the food industry. Even refrigeration contractors have noticed a spike in clients asking for additional cleaning and sanitizing measures. So, let’s take a look at how to keep your micro market’s refrigeration equipment running as cleanly and safely as possible.

Get a handle on high traffic areas

During the early days of pandemic panic buying, refrigeration unit doors were opened and closed incessantly by shoppers, and likely not being cleaned very often, either. We now shudder at the thought, knowing that the virus can survive up to nine days on metal, glass or plastic. It almost goes without saying (but we’re saying it anyway), that you should be wiping down your refrigeration equipment’s handles and exterior doors frequently with a disinfectant — a least a few times daily. If you want to be even more accommodating to your customers, you can keep hand sanitizer or sanitizing hand wipes (with at least 70% alcohol content) right next to your refrigeration units.

ACT: Ensure food safety

Operators should deep clean their refrigeration units monthly. While cleaning is more crucial than ever, overall food safety goes beyond that. If they are not adequately maintained and cleaned, or if their temperature is not stabilized, commercial refrigerators and freezers can quickly become bacterial carriers. Given the right conditions, bacteria found in food can double every 10 minutes! The “ACT” acronym helps to remember best practices: “Airflow, cleaning and temperature.”

Airflow: Why equipment needs to breathe

The condenser is like the “lungs” of your refrigeration equipment, which is why you want optimal airflow. A blocked condenser can cause equipment failure, overheating, spoiled product, higher electrical costs and even a possible void on your warranty.

As likely mentioned in your OEM’s installation instructions, your refrigeration units should be installed away from the surrounding walls, and nowhere near other equipment that radiates heat or produces a lot of airborne oil and grime. They should also each have their own dedicated electrical outlet. Once installed, inspections to check for blockages should be routine.

How you load your product inside the unit makes a difference, too. Product should be distributed evenly inside the unit, as overloading blocks interior airflow, which can lead to spoiled food. But don’t “underload” either — the thermal mass of the refrigerated or frozen products makes it easier to maintain the interior temperature. Just remember: a well-stocked (but not stuffed) cabinet is a happy one.

Cleaning: prevent COVID-19

Strong cleaners like bleach are fine for floors and countertops, but they can compromise the quality of the food in your refrigerated unit. (Plus, no one wants to eat a bleach scented sandwich.) A food-safe detergent and soft cloth, used properly, will do the job, because soap interferes with the fats in COVID-19’s virus shell, which lifts the virus from surfaces and is then rinsed off with water. Also, avoid “spraying” any undiluted cleaner directly to the unit, since excessive liquid can seep into the electrical connections and cause a malfunction or electrical hazard.

Every OEM will have its own cleaning procedures for refrigeration equipment, and you should always follow those guidelines. For self-contained commercial units, follow these tips:

  • Before cleaning your unit’s interior, always unplug it first. (Some units may still run fan motors and electronics even when switched off.)
  • Remove all products from the unit and thoroughly clean any spillage inside, as this can cause foul odors and mold to form.
  • Allow additional time to fully melt ice in commercial freezers, especially chest-style freezers without automatic defrosts. Avoid scraping ice from the inside of the unit, as this may damage the unit or even puncture the wall, potentially damaging the refrigeration system.
  • Leave the doors open to dry the interior of the unit, then wipe all surfaces with a food-safe detergent. There are some areas that will be inaccessible, so it’s important to leave the doors open and provide sufficient airflow to evaporate the majority of the moisture.
  • Inspect the unit for any damage. For example, when wiping down the doors, check for gaps or tears in the gaskets. If you’re not able to snap them back into place, they need to be replaced.
  • Leave the door propped open slightly to allow any remaining moisture to escape. Failing to do so can also lead to odor and mold forming inside of the unit.
  • If your unit has a conventional condenser, remove the front grill and use a small, hand-held duster to clean inside, and, if necessary, a vacuum cleaner to clean up any additional debris. Then, reattach the front grill. Some units are built with low maintenance condensers which require regular visual inspections and much less frequent cleaning than conventional condensers.
  • When restarting the equipment, allow the unit to cool down to its ideal operating temperature before loading it with product.
  • To avoid any contamination, keep cleaning equipment for refrigeration units separate from those used for floors or other equipment in the store.
  • Some glass doors include special coatings to enhance thermal and visual performance that can be damaged using inappropriate cleaners. Follow specific directions as outlined in the equipment manual for your model.

Temperature: don’t let your refrigeration get a fever

Like humans, refrigeration units should have a “healthy” temperature. Temperature variations, or a “fever,” can potentially contribute to bacteria growth, pathogens and cross-contamination.

In micro markets where doors are being opened and closed all day, maintaining optimal temperatures within the unit is crucial. For example, chilled foods like microwavable meals should be kept within the 37°F to 41°F range. Short spikes, not exceeding 30 minutes, above 41°F are acceptable. If you do not have a temperature malfunctioning safeguard, you should aim to monitor temperatures frequently to make sure they are within the healthy range. Since you will need to sanitize the handles on merchandiser doors often, you can do both cleaning and temperature monitoring tasks at once.

These are challenging times, but what is encouraging is that micro markets are actually at the forefront of COVID-19 preventative measures and innovations, with significantly less “customer touch points.” Additionally, purchasing freezers and refrigerators equipped with self-cleaning condensers, digital thermostats and food safety locks will also go a long way in protecting your products and, more importantly, the people you’re selling them to.

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