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Keep Refrigeration Units Clean
A little maintenance goes a long way toward saving money and avoiding food risks
by Gina R. Nicholson
The recent Listeria outbreak has brought to life a new set of questions for the retail food industry. One question involves the sanitation of refrigeration units. Commercial refrigeration/freezer units are the heart of every retail food business. Keeping these units cleaned and working properly ensures not only the safety but also the quality of each product.
The number of each type of food item sold from each sales floor unit is meticulously measured by merchandisers. If the unit goes down, sales dollars are lost, directly affecting the bottom line. If the unit does not maintain safe temperatures, the product becomes compromised from a food safety and quality standpoint. This scenario affects the bottom line but is more difficult to measure—and the consequences can be costlier.
A Healthy Refrigeration Unit
Take the first step to keeping your unit healthy by keeping all the mechanical parts clean. Sanitation of sales floor refrigeration units involves more than keeping the outside surfaces sparkling clean for customers.
Cleaning the inner workings of the refrigeration unit is even more important. If proper sanitation and temperatures are not maintained, microorganisms can grow, affecting the safety and quality of the food products sold in the case. “The two most important factors that can lead to the growth of dangerous bacteria in cold holding cases are case temperature and case cleanliness,” said Jeff Anderson, Procter & Gamble Professional public health science manager. “Establishing an effective case sanitation program is an important aspect mitigating these risk factors.”
Anderson also recommended that food safety and quality professionals work with their sanitation and cold-holding case suppliers to ensure that the case-cleaning program is effective and won’t damage the case.
“Particularly sensitive areas of the case that can be damaged during cleaning are electrical components such as fans and lighting and the interior evaporator coils,” he noted. “Electrical components are generally not designed to be flooded with copious amounts of water and other cleaning solutions. Evaporator coils are often made of copper and/or aluminum, and these soft metals are corrosion susceptible to many acidic and alkaline cleaners. Again, working with your sanitation and case suppliers will ensure your program will not damage these sensitive components.”
Break It Down
There are several parts on a unit that should be cleaned regularly: the external portion of the unit, including outside surfaces, doors, and gasket seals; the internal portion, including shelving, doors, and walls; and mechanical components, including the condenser coils, fan blades and motor, honeycombs, and air return vents.
The external portion of a commercial refrigeration unit should be cleaned with mild soap and water on a weekly basis or more often after visual observations of dirt build-up. Never use strong chemical cleaners, which may damage the surface materials and finishes and leave a strong unpleasant odor for customers.
The internal portion of a commercial refrigeration unit contains more sensitive areas that require various cleaning methods. Listed below is a breakdown of basic cleaning of different parts found in the internal portion of a refrigeration unit (always consult the manufacturer for proper cleaning procedures):
Condenser coils: This is the most sensitive piece found in the refrigerator unit. The location of these coils varies, so refer to the owner’s manual or ask your maintenance technician. This part should be cleaned at least once a month to keep it free of dust, dirt, and lint. Brush or vacuum the condenser fins from top to bottom, never side to side. (Some manufacturers require the use of special condenser coil cleaners). Make sure that the unit is unplugged before beginning the internal cleaning process on these specific parts.
Fan blades and motor: These parts should also be cleaned once a month. Dry cleaning is done with a soft cloth run over both the motor and the fan blades. If it is necessary to wash the blades, cover the motor with another dry cloth so that the moisture does not cause damage to the motor. Only use mild detergent and water, never stronger chemical cleaners. Make sure that the unit is unplugged before beginning the internal cleaning process on these specific parts.
Honeycombs and air return vents: These parts of the unit create airflow and cold air curtains and should be cleaned at least quarterly depending on environmental exposure. It is essential to keep the honeycombs cleaned. Many times, this part looks clean upon visual observation, but removing it may reveal dirt, mold, and slime clogging airflow holes and providing the perfect medium for unwanted microbial growth. Air return vents can house hidden treasures like pens, price tags, food products, and, yes, even a toddler’s pacifier! Before cleaning air return vents, make sure that the drain is unclogged and large debris and ice are removed. Again, only use mild detergent and water. Do not use stronger chemical cleaners.
Interior shelving, doors, and walls: These parts should be cleaned at least once a week, or more often if necessary. Wet cleaning should only be done with a soft cloth and mild detergent and water, allowing the water to be carried away by the drain. Manufacturers do not recommend the use of high pressure cleaning equipment; this method can penetrate and/or damage seals and end joints. Damaged seals allow water leaks and/or air leaks that can cause poor case refrigeration.
It is important to remember not to use steel wool, caustic cleaning chemicals, or bleach when cleaning the interior of your unit. Not only can these products cause damage to the finish or materials, but they can also leave behind strong odors that can affect the flavor/quality of the food.
As I discussed commercial refrigeration case sanitation with Anderson, he reminded me that it all boils down to the employee’s behavior while cleaning. “There are many important cleaning performance factors, and one of these factors is the person cleaning. Make sure you have an effective sanitation training program that includes training on how to efficiently and effectively clean. I find that it’s also important to train the employee how not to clean a case, using examples that have resulted in damage to the case, such as use of chemicals and tools that will damage sensitive components.”
The only way to be sure employees are using the proper cleaning procedures and chemicals is to “establish an effective cleanliness monitoring and feedback system which can facilitate the ongoing training and reinforcement needs of your employees,” he added.
Establishing a preventive maintenance program is paramount to spotting potential problems before they become a troublesome reality. Routine inspection of each refrigeration unit can prevent paying much more to fix the damage that may be caused further down the road. Using a deferred maintenance program is never the best practice.
Gina R. Nicholson, RS, is food safety and quality manager for The Kroger Co.