“Flippy”—the world’s first burger flipping robot—launched March at a Caliburger restaurant in California. Capable of grilling 150 burgers per hour, the robot was praised for being cost-effective, efficient and able to safely and consistently prepare food for the restaurant’s guests. The robot was designed to take orders through a digital ticketing system, then automatically flip the burgers and remove them from the grill. Flippy uses thermal and 3-D sensors, cameras and digital ordering systems to detect every step in the process, such as when the raw burgers are placed on the grill. Then the robot monitors each burger throughout its cooking process. While Flippy can expertly (and automatically) handle the burger flipping, its human coworkers still need to place the patties on the grill, put on the toppings (cheese, lettuce, sauce), and wrap the burgers for guests.
At Spyce, an innovative new restaurant in Boston, human chefs have been replaced with robots, thanks to robotics engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who partnered with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud on this endeavor. In the restaurant’s kitchen, seven automated woks cook guests’ meals in three minutes or less. Once guests place their orders, an automated delivery system collects ingredients from around the restaurant kitchen. Machines portion the ingredients into the correct amounts and deliver them to a robotic wok, which is programmed to cook the foods to proper temperatures. Once the cooking is completed, the automated wok tilts down to plate the food, which is then ready to be served.
While robots in restaurants’ kitchens may sound like the plotline of a sci-fi movie, technology is actually elevating food safety in our restaurants and other food businesses. There’s a major trend in the food service industry to remove humans from safety management and replace them with technological solutions, such as robots and sensors. In fact, tech tools—robotics and artificial intelligence, data analytics, the Internet of Things, etc.—are already having huge, positive implications for supply chain management and food safety. This is just the beginning.
There’s no denying: there have been numerous, widespread, and serious food safety breaches in our restaurants lately. Quick-service restaurants have inadvertently sickened guests due to human errors—such as time-temperature abuse. Quick-serve workers have spread the highly contagious norovirus by contaminating the food (and surfaces) they’ve touched, sickening as many as hundreds of guests per incident. There have also been multiple examples of food safety breaches caused by tainted produce—including two different widespread E.coli outbreaks stemming from contaminated romaine lettuce—at restaurants nationwide.
What if we could prevent or reduce these incidents by using technological solutions—such as robots, Artificial Intelligence, sensors, the Internet of Things, etc.? Now, we can.
Tech solutions give us automation—robots are programmed to do the same things, the same way every time, giving us the consistency we can’t get from human workers. For example, a burger flipping robot can be programmed to avoid cross-contamination, use only sanitized equipment, and cook the burgers to proper temperatures. Sensors can immediately detect potential problems that could cause food safety breaches – such as coolers rising above a pre-set temperature, freezer doors inadvertently left open, and meats that have not been cooked to proper (safe) temperatures.
Some innovative developments in the food industry include:
- Robots. Restaurants are using robots to cook and plate food, ensuring consistency and making certain that food safety protocols are followed every time. Automation means tools will never touch both raw and cooked proteins. Less bare hand contact results in less contamination. Robots are programmed to execute tasks the same way every time, while humans are often inconsistent.
- Sensors. Sensors can monitor various elements of food safety, such as ensuring that foods are being held at proper temperatures. Centralized, continuous refrigeration monitoring systems signal when temperatures in coolers or freezers rise above safe holding temperatures, reducing food spoilage and waste due to improperly working units. Cooking equipment with built-in sensors—like innovative meat thermometers that change colors when proteins are cooked to safe temperatures—make it easier and more accurate to confirm that foods are being cooked properly and safely.
- Smart kitchen equipment. The latest coolers, blast chillers and ovens include wireless systems that track and record temperatures automatically. Virginia Tech is an early adopter of this high-tech equipment, as the school utilizes large storage coolers that automatically alert staff if temperatures rise above a certain point. This is important—it prevents food spoilage and potential foodborne illness outbreaks.
- Artificial intelligence. Predictive AI will be instrumental in analyzing supply chain data and using it to anticipate and identify problems before they cause any harm. Future technologies will be able to identify product irregularities and/or potential security breaches to reduce or eliminate hazards in our foods. This could prevent or reduce serious illnesses, such as the (two!) recent widespread romaine lettuce outbreaks. Technology has the potential to identify, track and assess the issues that have caused widespread safety problems in our foods. Tremendous amounts of proteins—including beef, chicken, and ground turkey—have been recalled in recent months over E.coli and salmonella concerns. We need to embrace the technical solutions that can identify potential safety issues earlier in the process—before the potentially dangerous foods are shipped, sold and served.
- The Internet of Things. The IoT, connected sensors transmitting large amounts of data, is revolutionizing the supply chain. Food businesses will be better able to track their products and identify/address any operational issues. The IoT will significantly improve transparency and visibility. Sensors will carefully monitor products throughout the supply chain life cycle to identify and address any possible food safety issues or concerns.
Recent food safety breaches have been numerous, widespread and serious. Consumers are (understandably) anxious about eating a Caesar salad after two major E.coli outbreaks around romaine lettuce. Proteins have been recalled—literally hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time. These are NOT isolated incidents. And technological solutions are the answer to this serious, continuous problem.
Everyone in the food industry—from the farmers that grow our food to the restaurant chefs that prepare it—should use and embrace tech tools. While some tech solutions might not be viable for all businesses—clearly, not every restaurant can afford a $60,000 robot like Flippy—tech solutions are becoming more mainstream, accessible and affordable. Technology is helping to keep foods safer—something that humans have been failing at recently.