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Food-safety seminar provokes a torrent of responses from the food industry and the refrigeration industry.

| | May 30, 2011 | 3:44 pm
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Food-safety seminar provokes a torrent of responses from the food industry and the refrigeration industry. Story: B Surendar | Photographs: Rey Delante

The food industry seized the opportunity of an interaction with engineering consultants, contractors, and suppliers and service providers of refrigeration equipment to express its concerns and present a catalogue of woes. The engineers, in turn, described what they felt were shortcomings in the end-users – retailers, wholesalers, caterers and food processors.

The churn, however, eventually helped the two sides understand each other better and opened avenues for solutions to outstanding issues and for sustained collaboration. Dubai Municipality was in attendance and clarified different aspects and presented a roadmap of things to come, which assuaged feelings and ushered in optimism that the situation was bound to improve on several fronts.

The occasion was a two-day seminar, called Food Chain, held on May 9 and 10 in Dubai. Organised and conducted by Climate Control Middle East, the event spotlighted handling and storage issues through roundtables and seminars, which probably for the first time, brought the two sides face to face.

For long, end-users have been complaining of the poor quality of the equipment supplied to them – most notably, compressors, which have required replacements in large volumes – poor installation practices, lack of adequate after-sales support and poor training offered to their own technical personnel by the suppliers of equipment and service providers.

During the seminar – in particular, during a roundtable involving the food industry and the engineering community – all these issues welled up, with consultants and contractors, in particular, the target of complaints. A key issue that end users raised was poor design and installation practices. Bharat Asarpota, the Maintenance Manager at Emarat, who also moderated the roundtable, spoke of several instances where consultants simply did not do their job. Pointing out that Emarat had several convenience stores in the country, he said that the mistakes in the first store were being repeated “in the 85th store”. This was because, he said, consultants followed a cut-and-paste approach, completely unmindful of the specific requirements of each store or each location. “They don’t revisit any of their earlier projects to assess and evaluate if everything is working as per plan,” Asarpota said. “As a result, the mistakes are being repeated.”

Fadhel Al Kazemi, the CEO of Al Kazema Holding, in Kuwait, echoed Asarpota’s views when he said all the cold stores ended up looking alike. “The concept that a particular cold store has to be as per the requirement of the customer, is not there,” Al Kazemi said. They don’t bother to check if it is integrated with processing.”

Ravi Chandran, the General Manager of Dubai-based specialised catering-services providers, Epicure and Health Factory, was another end user who expressed his disappointment with consultants. He said he had learnt his lessons and, if it came to assigning a new project, he would like to see who had installed what and their track record. “I won’t go to a new comer,” he said.

Richard Sprenger, the Chairman of UK-based Highfield, said a common element missing in the whole picture was contingency planning – something that consultants should factor in. “Any equipment we have got, we can be sure, it is going to break down at some point,” Sprenger said. “A cheap equipment will probably break down in five minutes whereas a good equipment will do so in 10 years’ time.” The questions, he said, were how do we cope with breakdown? How soon can we get a replacement?

Asked Chandran: “What is Plan B?” What if all your refrigeration equipment breaks down?” A lack of contingency planning could mean losing customers owing to a delay in supply of food. Al Kazemi described how he was once at the receiving end of poor contingency planning in Kuwait and faced the prospect of losing 30,000 tonnes of food, because he had problems with the ammonia pumps at his facility. He described in frightening detail how the company struggled to locate the equipment, considering there was no alternative facility to accommodate such a large capacity of food. Eventually, one of the personnel, who was from Denmark, swiftly flew to Europe and back with the replacements. The fact that he was European, Al Kazemi said, helped in cutting down on the time it would have taken to get a visa. The moral of the story, Al Kazemi said, was never to underestimate that things could go wrong. Referring to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Al Kazemi said, “Standby is good to face hostile weather conditions and regional wars. Food is important for the stabilisation of the country.”

Sprenger said he needed to see consultants plan for maximum demand and not average demand. “When people are designing, are they taking in the maximum usage? Sprenger said, alluding to the need for a more thoughtful approach. “Are they thinking of how the unit is going to be used? I have seen abuse of equipment when bottles of water are put in. Bottles of water brought in with no refrigeration and put into the units. Can the refrigeration cope? And what will happen when the food is hot?”

Asarpota pointed out to a larger issue that, perhaps, explained the conundrum of what the end users characterised as inadequate service from consultants – the lack of specialised refrigeration consultants in the country. “There is no refrigeration consultant in the market today,” he said. “The MEP engineering is the subset of the design engineer. Refrigeration is just another box in the drawing. There is no regard to where food is being prepared and stored.”

At the same time, Asarpota said end users could alleviate the situation by communicating with consultants. The onus is as much on the end users to be alert and attentive. “When you find out you have been sold a wrong design, do you sit down with your consultant and give your inputs?” he asked. “End user participation is important.”

Equally, end-users have a responsibility in ensuring food safety. A few weeks prior to the seminar, Lars Johansson, the Director of Dew Kylsystem and a veteran of the cold chain industry in Sweden, spoke of how he had repeatedly seen retailers cutting corners at the time of constructing their facilities or even in the manner they used them, thus increasing the possibility of compromising on food safety. This aspect came up for discussion during the seminar when Richard Sprenger referred to how he had seen supermarkets handle food in a callous manner. “You, as engineers, may have the equipment running well, but if you don’t train the staff on stacking up then it is no use.

The topic of training aroused emotions, with end users complaining of how equipment manufacturers needed to do a better job at training their in-house technical personnel in operating and maintaining the equipment in the appropriate way, and with the authorities pointing out that retailers, wholesalers and food processors equally needed to ramp up their efforts in training their personnel in technical and non-technical aspects. Domingo Perez, Senior Refrigeration Engineer, at Al Bwardy, which provides engineering support services to Spinneys, said that the training ought to be done from the supervisor downwards. Even then, there was no guarantee. “I have seen people that are trained are transferred to other stations and, then, the new staff need to be trained all over again,” he said.

Perez’s words precisely conveyed the sentiment that training does not receive its due importance, be it in supermarkets or corner convenience stores. Bashir Hassan Yousif, Coordinator — Technical Committee at Dubai Municipality, said how the grocery store below his apartment was an example of inadequate training of personnel. “I have noticed how the store has continuously turned off its power even for critical food products,” he said. “This is due to lack of regulation and lack of knowledge.”

Youssif said that Dubai Municipality’s new initiative, Person In Charge (PIC), once fully implemented, would change that behaviour. “PIC will work,” he said. “It has to work, because everybody is involved in it. We don’t want to dilute food safety.” (PIC will come up for detailed discussion in the next issue of Climate Control Middle East.)

Bemoaning the lack of importance given to training, Sprenger hoped that PIC would turn things around. “The one that Dubai has put in with PIC is the best food training I have seen anywhere in the world,” Sprenger said. “We have to see two to three years from now if implementation matches theory.” The mentality among end users, Sprenger said, is that training reduces profitability, as opposed to a culture that training protect profit. This, he added, has to change. “Otherwise, he said, “people will pay lip service to it, and it won’t work. If the manager (in the supermarket) turns a blind eye to the problem, then there is no use. The manager must pull everyone together.”

VoicesYou might have the best equipment in the world, but if the installation is bad, then you have a problem.- Richard Sprenger, Highfield, UKYou are at 30,000 feet up in the air with limited medical facilities, so you need to have high standards for food safety.- Loraine Hughes, Food Point (a unit of Emirates Flight Catering)Everyone knows food poisoning is a horrendous story.- Bharat Asarpota, EmaratThere could be legislation to have professional refrigeration consultants.- Ravi Chandran, Epicure and Health FactoryThe bigger issue is the need for standardisation. In Europe, everyone from the suppliers to the end users have standards.

Loraine Hughes, Food Point (a unit of Emirates Flight Catering)

ESMA could step in and put some standards for the equipment.

Bashir Hassan Yousif, Dubai Municipality

For energy efficiency, you need to introduce sub metering, one for lighting to see how much you save by daylighting, one for freezers.

George Berbari, DC PRO Engineering

Our coverage of Food Chain will continue in the next issue.

Next issue, we look at:

  • Refrigerated transportation
  • Person In Charge (PIC)

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