“Maintaining correct food temperature is an essential requirement for all catering operations - from transport and storage through to preparation and meal delivery. This is increasingly a difficult challenge for the healthcare sector, faced with growing pressures to deliver high standards with ever-tightening budgets and a shrinking workforce.
Health sector clients are particularly vulnerable to food-borne bacteria, and all catering managers know that even the most basic of thermometers will help them reduce this risk. So a common response is for managers to sacrifice quality for basic budget thermometers of the throw-away kind. What’s wrong with this? Well it could be a risky strategy both for food safety and for economy.
Firstly, there is the issue of accuracy. It’s commonly known that ensuring food is piping hot eliminates most bacteria but what do we mean by piping hot - 65° C, 70, 80 - or more? The right answer will depend on what is being cooked and for how long it is being kept warm; and this will dictate just how accurate your equipment needs to be. Similarly, the storage temperature of chilled food is especially critical; UK food regulations require an accuracy of +/- 0.5° C. It’s important therefore, to look very closely at the detailed specification of food thermometers and probes when it comes to purchasing if you are to avoid potentially harmful false results.
Secondly, there is the issue of value for money – robust, long-life thermometers do what they say on the label and will cost you less in the long run. But that doesn’t mean the purchaser doesn’t have any options - if you know your working environment or methods are likely to result in a high turnover of thermometers, ask the manufacturer about service contracts or pre-negotiated repair charge arrangements which give you more control over spending.
Another issue to take into consideration is what you do with a temperature once you have taken it! In recent years, European legislation has demanded a belt and braces approach to food temperature recording; taking accurate temperatures alone is not enough - HACCP food safety regulations require enhanced due diligence on the recording of results at every stage of food storage, preparation and delivery.
This can be a logistical nightmare for managers resulting in a more labour intensive operation and a daunting paper mountain, which is why many have turned to paperless systems to reduce the burden and to reduce the risk of human error. An initial enthusiasm for complex wireless monitoring systems to meet this challenge has recently waned – not least because of the significant costs involved for cash-strapped hospitals, care homes and nursing homes - but also due to the persistent need to carry out multiple, hands-on spot checks that can be easily verified.
Thankfully, the design and manufacture of handheld temperature monitoring equipment has evolved quite rapidly in response to all these demands. This is particularly true in the UK where there is still considerable expertise in this kind of technology, and experience has shown that it is not always the most expensive or complex systems that are best.
Easy to use, affordable equipment is now available for a wide range of temperature applications, commonly required in healthcare catering. For example, waterproof thermometers and dishwasher-safe food probes are not only more practical but also play an important role in supporting infection control. A number of UK manufacturers now build this functionality into their standard designs; look for the IP67 label in the detailed specification.
Something as simple as hygienic and convenient storage of equipment cannot be overlooked. Considerable time and money can be lost searching for misplaced thermometers and food probes in a busy hospital kitchen; look out for suppliers who offer stainless steel wall mounted storage or handy thermometer holsters to keep equipment in the right place at all times.
Even the more innovative solutions are within the grasp of catering managers on a tight budget; look out for some really useful ideas like the cold storage kit which uses an ingenious food simulant probe to mimic the true temperature of stored food in cold cabinets, fridges and freezers – ensuring speedier, more accurate results and reducing the incidence of wastage.
The next generation
Maintaining verifiable, interrogative temperature logs at an affordable cost is still one of the most difficult issues for a modern catering operation. Although the next generation of thermometers is definitely up to the challenge; thanks to advances in handheld Bluetooth technology, UK temperature experts have now developed a new solution to temperature recording which combines a conventional handheld thermometer with mobile wireless functionality. These revolutionary Bluetooth thermometers also harness Barcode technology, combining both functions in a single, handheld unit.
The result is a genuine breakthrough in temperature monitoring – a handheld device which records not only temperature, time and date of measurement but also what has been measured.
As well as taking temperatures, these new-style thermometers can scan barcodes to identify and record the unique identity of any location or item that has been measured eg fridge, freezer – or even an individual plated meal. As many as 1,000 readings can be stored on the device which then has the power to download these results direct to PC, mobile phone or PDA. Results can be interrogated using conventional office-based software, which then allows the setting up of alerts. Results can even be uploaded to a third party website for online monitoring.
So before you are ready to order new equipment, there are a number of questions to consider. Is your preferred choice sufficiently accurate and robust for the job in hand? How practical and easy to use will it be? How will it fit in with your other operational requirements? A compatible range of thermometers and probes which can be used in all areas is often a wise choice – so is the model you are considering sufficiently versatile?
If you are bewildered by the sheer volume of different options on the market, it’s not surprising; many companies can sell you a thermometer but not all have the detailed expertise you need to help you make the right choice. But remember that expertise is not necessarily something you have to pay for; a reputable manufacturer or supplier will be happy to give you advice and their website will offer relevant information and guidance on your application.
The main warning note to sound is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is one to avoid; make sure your supplier properly understands your particular challenges and the standards you need to meet before committing that hard-won budget.
Tom Sensier is Managing Director of TM Electronics (UK) Ltd