TROY, Ohio -- Fresh food is not the only flash point for foodborne illness at the store level. Equipment -- how it is designed, and how it is used and maintained -- can serve just as well as a breeding ground for disease, and also for effective prevention against disease.
That is why food-processing-equipment and systems suppliers like Hobart Corp. here are changing their operations to live up to the fact that, increasingly, they are not just selling hardware. These days, the are selling safety.
Hobart has taken a pro-active stance, by making sure that realization infuses their efforts in employee education, product design and industrywide involvement.
In early 1997, Hobart became a sponsoring member of the International Food Safety Council and created an in-house food- safety program that focuses on educating its workers and creating product designs and features that ensure food safety.
"Four of the five leading causes of foodborne illnesses can be prevented by the proper use of equipment," said Martha Harrison, Hobart's Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point systems development manager, who oversees the company's food-safety program. "We felt that as the world's largest equipment manufacturer, we should make a commitment in this area."
According to Harrison, an estimated 9 million people get sick in the United States each year because of foodborne illnesses, and 9,000 die.
Each outbreak costs the food operator involved about $75,000. Supermarkets also pay a price in the waste associated with avoidable contamination, and in the loss of profits that occur when less-than-fresh products erode consumer confidence and market share.
Harrison said the five leading causes of foodborne illnesses and the percentage of illnesses they account for are:
Improper cooling, 30%.
Advance preparation, 17%.
Poor employee hygiene, 13%.
Inadequate reheating, 11%.
Improper hot holding, 9%.
The only cause not directly related to equipment and its use is poor employee hygiene, she said.
Education and product design are at the foundation of Hobart's food-safety program. Harrison said increased knowledge among the company's product designers is leading to more food-safe equipment and equipment features. In addition, she said, increased knowledge among field representatives is strengthening the company's consultative role.
Hobart's educational program is based on ServSafe, a certified training program used widely throughout the United States.
The program, which most states accept as meeting the training criteria for food-service workers, was developed by the Educational Foundation of the National Restaurant Association, which is affiliated with the International Food Safety Council.
Hobart expects to complete the training of 150 to 200 of its employees involved in the supermarket sector by year's end, according to Harrison. The training, which can take place at the company's corporate office here or at individual corporate locations throughout the country, is comprised of independent study and an eight-hour class that covers such topics as cross-contamination, time and temperature, and personal hygiene -- areas that Harrison called the "three basic principles of food safety."
Those trained include national account managers, sales representatives, design engineers and quality engineers.
"Good training allows everyone to understand the issues," Harrison noted. "As a result, our sales force can speak the language of food safety and our engineers can design more food safety-friendly equipment."
Since initiating the program, Hobart engineers have created a number of new and newly redesigned products that focus on food safety. One of the areas that Hobart has focused on is ergonomics.
"Hobart engineers are asking themselves if their equipment is designed for easy cleaning -- can an operator's hand fit comfortably into an area that requires cleaning, or is the space so tight that cleaning becomes a difficult task."
As a result, Hobart has introduced a new mixer/grinder and a new series of more "food safety-friendly" slicers.
Hobart's new mixer/grinder, which replaced its previous model last year, features an angled design that forces the draining of excess water and repositions the bin for easier access and cleaning, Harrison explained.
The company also introduced a new line of slicers this year called Series 2000. Unlike the predecessor it replaced, this line can be dismantled for thorough cleaning and features wider surface areas for employees' hands to get to hard-to-reach areas.
Such ease of use is vital: Operators are less likely to clean equipment at proper intervals when doing so is time consuming and difficult, she said.
And consequences of improper cleaning are steep: an increase in avoidable waste due to food spoiling before it can be sold; and a damaged reputation due to food that spoils soon after the customer takes it home.
"Slicers that aren't being cleaned at proper intervals are often the culprits behind deli meats that spoil soon after customers bring them home," said Harrison.
The company has also addressed the issue of improper cooling -- the leading cause of all foodborne illnesses -- with the introduction of more supermarket-friendly chillers.
Harrison added that Hobart's introduction earlier this year of a 90-pound capacity reach-in refrigerator, and a 135-pound capacity roll-in unit, will likely be more suitable for medium-sized supermarkets that may have considered larger, more traditional-sized units too big for their operations.
In addition to their convenient size, the new chillers feature a more efficient air-flow system that allows the items being chilled to be arranged in any order on the racks, she said. This differs from earlier models, which required food to be arranged in specific patterns, thus necessitating the constant rearranging of items as new ones were added or taken out.
Hobart has also unveiled a new monitoring and documentation control system designed to assist operators in meeting the requirements of HACCP, which seeks to minimize or eliminate food contamination by identifying and monitoring high-risk areas throughout the entire flow of food.
Hobart's answer to HACCP is HCPC -- the Hobart Communication Product Control system -- which was first introduced to the European market in 1996 and was shown, in concept, to the U.S. market during the fall of last year. Hobart plans to officially introduce it to the U.S. industry at the FMI show this week.
HCPC works by using computerized loggers to monitor temperatures at preset intervals that can range from one to 60 minutes. A probe set to monitor temperatures at 15-minute intervals, for example, would be able to store such data up to approximately 15 days. At this point, the operator would use a hand-held computer to collect the information, which would then be transferred onto a computer-software system that would compile it into graphs and tables.
Although the system can be used with all types of equipment, Harrison said its primary focus will be on refrigerators , hot cases, cold cases, steam tables and blast chillers.