Emerging foodservice automation calls for new sanitation standards

| by Elliot Maras
Emerging foodservice automation calls for new sanitation standards

Image courtesy of iStock

Audra Bildeaux cites the need for sanitation standards for automated foodservice equipment.

As foodservice becomes increasingly automated, how will the new generation of foodservice equipment be kept clean and safe? 

Audra Bildeaux, senior business development manager for food at NSF International, gave an overview during the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago of the sanitation challenge posed by automated equipment. NSF International is an independent organization that tests, audits, certifies, trains and consults in the food, water, health science, sustainability and consumer product sectors. 

Much attention has focused on the impact of automation on efficiency and labor in the foodservice industry. As new types of equipment are introduced into the foodservice environment, however, new sanitation standards will be needed to protect consumers and the foodservice provider.

The robots are coming

Bildeaux said there is no question that automation and robotics are changing the foodservice industry. Robots are already being deployed to assemble food in restaurants, as evidenced by a robotic salad maker on the trade show floor.

"It's definitely coming to a restaurant near you," Bildeaux said, noting that fully automated kitchens are already in operation.

While Bildeaux did not go into detail about the types of automation she sees emerging in foodservice, she did predict an influx of manufacturers coming into the industry from nonfood backgrounds.

Software, electrical and mechanical engineers generally are not knowledgeable about foodservice regulations, she said. The entrepreneurs developing new foodservice equipment will not necessarily be familiar with foodservice regulatory requirements, and will need to be educated.

The manufacturing environment familiar to many equipment-makers is a highly controlled compared with the foodservice environment, Bildeaux said. For instance, manufacturing environments are not necessarily subject to the temperature changes common in foodservice settings.

"Equipment must adhere to NSF International standards, and that is sometimes difficult for equipment that was not designed with sanitation in mind," Bildeaux noted. "Therefore, if it were to malfunction, it could pose a health risk."

The regulatory structure at the present time may not be capable of addressing the sanitation issues posed by new foodservice equipment, Bildeaux said. This is a challenge NSF International has to address.

Adapting equipment that was designed for manufacturing — such as a robot that assembles cars — to foodservice use such as flipping burgers presents a challenge, she said.

New sanitation standards needed

A sanitation requirement could mandate that equipment be designed and built "to prevent the harborage of vermin and the accumulation of dirt and debris, and to permit the inspection, maintenance, servicing and cleaning of the equipment and the components," Bildeaux said.

The task of coming up with standards for complex equipment can be addressed by establishing standards for specific components, she said.

"If we just break it down into those components, then we can certify this," she said.

The NSF Foundation currently has more than 20 standards for food equipment, Bildeaux said. The requirements vary based on the zone in which the equipment is located, as follows: food zones — readily accessible and easily cleanable; splash zones — accessible and easily cleanable; nonfood zones — accessible and cleanable; and unexposed nonfood zones — intended for maintenance access only.

An "easily cleanable" zone is one in which the entire exposed area is accessible with a rag, as opposed to one that is "cleanable," Bildeaux explained in response to a question from the audience.

"If you change the zone, you change the requirements," she said.

Topics: Equipment & Supplies, Food Safety, Safety, Systems / Technology

Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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