Imagine yourself sitting down for dinner at your favorite restaurant or at the cafe down the street for a quick bite on your lunch break. On your plate in front of you sits a chicken sandwich with extra mayo and Swiss cheese and a big, heaping side of potato salad. Besides the thoughts that are running through your head about how satisfying that first bite is going to be not only for your taste buds, but also your growling stomach, are you ever thinking about the journey - sometimes long, sometimes short - the ingredients of that sandwich and potato salad went on to end up on the plate in front of you? The answer is probably not, because by ordering that sandwich and salad from a credible food service establishment that you eat at regularly, you trust that the restaurant, and the distributors who delivered the food products, followed food safety regulations and protocols for storage and delivery, and you inherently trust that your meal is safe to eat. But how do you know that you can really trust that the chicken breast laying on your ciabatta was actually kept at safe temperatures from its packaging to its plating? The scary truth is that, actually, you can't.
There are strict rules set forth to food handlers and preparers by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the temperatures for storing and transporting food, so it's easy to see why thoughts of how your food reached your plate rarely, if ever, pop into your head. But, what if you found out that on its journey to your favorite restaurant, or the cafe down the street, the ingredients of your chicken sandwich sat for hours in an unrefrigerated, unregulated storage locker with temperatures that may have reached up to 105°F? What if you found out that the refrigerator truck that delivered the food to the restaurant you are eating at were kept at anything but cold? Or what if you learned that not only was the chicken that your about to dig your teeth into was not only stored at improper temperatures, but in storage units that were a far cry from sanitary? Chances are, you may have second guesses about eating anything perishable, or even eating out at all, for that matter.
It's no secret that refrigeration plays a vital part in maintaining the health and safety of perishable food items like dairy, meat, poultry, seafood and produce, and if ideal temperatures aren't maintained throughout the cold chain then the potential for bacterial growth and spoilage increase exponentially. Even still, with all the knowledge we have about food safety today, food born diseases are a far more serious and frequent problem than many people realize. In fact, according to the FDA, the Federal government estimates that there are roughly, 48 million cases of food born illness outbreaks annually. That's 1 in 6 Americans every year! What's worse is that each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. They're alarming statistics, not only because of the staggering number of people that are dying each year due to food related illnesses, but because with refrigeration technologies of the modern day, there should be no reason that the number of fatalities should be that high! Sure, it's true that not all food born illnesses are a result of poor refrigeration practices, but they certainly don't help. Actually, according to the FDA, the number of bacteria that cause food born sickness in consumers can double every 20 minutes on food stored at room temperature!
In a day in age where eating a meal out is the norm where, according to the National Restaurant Association, two in five consumers say that eating in restaurants is an essential part of their lifestyle and where restaurant-industry sales are projected to total $683.4 billion in 2014, it is of paramount importance that we start paying better attention to the journey that our food makes on its way to our plates, so that we can be sure that what we are about to consume for lunch won't kill us.
Refrigeration is key. Currently, up to 33% of perishable foods are lost during transportation, not to mention the loss of product due to improper storage at retail level. For the food industry, that's about $35 billion in annual reported losses of perishable product. Yikes.
As a former restaurant manager of a hugely successful seafood restaurant in California who worked closely with food distributors, health inspectors and kitchen staff, I understand the importance of saving money and product, but it hits close to home for me when I hear horror stories about the improper storage of food, inadequate delivery vehicles and illness outbreaks. Under no circumstance should the health and safety of a customer be compromised for profit.
By exploring the history of refrigeration, exposing cases of unacceptable refrigeration practices of major food distributors, investigating the journey our food takes in refrigeration trucks and reiterating the importance of maintaining the cold chain, throughout this series I hope to reveal how adhering to simple refrigeration practices and continuously, automatically monitoring temperature, at all stages of food production and transportation, can reduce the number of food born illness cases we encounter in the United States annually. Nothing tastes as good as being healthy feels and what excuse is there, really, for breaks in the cold chain, when there are products available that efficiently, accurately and affordably monitor temperature? Not only would all members of the cold chain be able to protect more food from spoilage and bacterial infection, but also their customers could enjoy their food safely without having to worry about illness.
Kate Hofberg, Epicurean Essayist
Temperature@lert’s resident foodie from sunny Santa Barbara, Kate Hofberg, creates weekly blog posts, manages the content database, and assists with the marketing team's projects. Balancing a love for both the west and east coast, Hofberg studied at University of California Santa Barbara, where she received a Bachelors in Communications, and Boston University, where she is currently a Masters candidate in Journalism. Before coming to Temperature@lert, Hofberg trained in her foodie ways through consumption of extremely spicy, authentic Mexican food with her three brothers and managing a popular Santa Barbara beachside restaurant. Through her training and love of great food, she brings fresh methods of cooking up content. When Hofberg is not working on Temperature@lert marketing endeavors, she serves as a weekly opinion columnist for the Boston University independent student-run newspaper, The Daily Free Press. If time permits, Hofberg enjoys long walks, reading, playing with her cat, and eating pizza. Her ideal temperature is 115°F because she loves temperatures as hot and spicy as her food.