Not all food coolers are created equal. This is especially important to consider when placing a micro market as it is a new type of food establishment that must pass the scrutiny of a health inspector. Be prepared by knowing what the inspectors will be looking for, and what types of tests they will perform to approve the micro market location.
Types of certifications
While food coolers have been around for years, micro markets have not. "These are kind of new – the unattended food establishment – and that's the problem, the unattended part," explained Rick Daugherty, NAMA's public health consultant who works with aftermarket lock manufacturers to ensure locks meet food safety standards. If a food cooler is placed in a convenience store, for example, Daugherty explains that there is someone there who can monitor the temperature. Having a person onsite, a representative from the foodservice company, is spelled out in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Code. In a micro market there is no one in "charge" and how to deal with the unattended aspect is only now being addressed, therefore, micro market operators run the risk of selling food that is out of temperature. "That would be a health department violation and could make somebody sick, which means a lawsuit," added Daugherty.
According to Daugherty, there are two main certifications operators will see when looking at coolers. One is NSF 7 and the other is NAMA Listed.
NSF 7 refers to the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) standard that establishes minimum food protection and sanitation requirements for the materials, design, manufacture, construction and performance of commercial refrigerators and freezers and their related components. This includes storage refrigerators and freezers (reach-in, under counter, walk-in, roll-in); rapid pull-down refrigerators and freezers; refrigerated food transport cabinets, buffet units and food preparation units; display refrigerators; beverage coolers; and ice cream cabinets.
NSF 7 on a cooler or freezer ensures it meets refrigeration capabilities, but doesn't ensure it's acceptable for micro market food use. "NSF doesn't have any provisions in their vending machine standard for micro market coolers, as far as I know," said Daugherty, "so NSF 7 would not be acceptable to health departments for this type of cooler [one meant to hold food in an unattended foodservice establishment]. That is why the health department will be looking for 'NAMA Listed' for the lock out mechanism [on a micro market cooler]."
Being NAMA Listed refers to equipment that meets that the NAMA Construction Standard, or Standard for the Sanitary Design and Construction of Food and Beverage Vending Machines thereby authorized to use the NAMA service mark. This is a voluntary standard governing the sanitary design and construction of food and beverage vending machines and related dispensing equipment, which includes micro markets. The standards incorporate the requirements of the FDA and requires initial and annual testing and evaluation of equipment by a third party, at a manufacturer level. Companies able to use the NAMA Service Mark, NAMA Listed, have signed a contract agreeing the NAMA Service Mark will be placed only on products fully complying with the NAMA Construction Standard. The NAMA Service Mark can be die stamped, printed on a metal plate together with, or separate from, other machine identification plates or it may be printed on a durable pressure-sensitive type of material. NAMA provides a list of manufacturers who have earned the NAMA Service Market on its website.
"The health timers and lock out systems were always part of food vending machines," explained Daugherty. "Now it's a matter of translating them to the micro market food coolers, which hasn't been that difficult." Cooler manufacturers have started building these locks in food coolers meant for micro markets and there are also retrofit locks to install on existing coolers that meet the lock out requirements.
Know the field test procedure
Health departments have different rules, but most of them follow the food code, which is suggesting food coolers in unattended establishments have a lock out mechanism or healthy lock. That means health inspectors will be looking for it and want to make sure it operates properly. "Cooler and freezer manufacturers in this industry have created a field test, which is part of the operations manual," explained Daugherty. "That is so an inspector in the field has a way to make sure the lock is working without having to wait, unplug and wait, etc." Without the field test procedure, the testing process takes hours, to ensure the cooler locks when the temperature rises. It's an important part of food safety in unattended retail.
In addition to health departments, many governmental and military foodservice regulations require that all unattended food, beverage and water vending machines and micro market coolers meet recognized national public health standards. Plus, it avoids citations and potential lawsuits that would affect an operator's business. "It really shouldn't happen [having food coolers without automatic lock out mechanisms] because there are plenty of products now available on the market – coolers with locks," said Daugherty.