Moving Ahead With Food Temp Sensors, Trackers

July 3, 2000
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BELMONT, NC — The science of monitoring and tracking the condition and storage history of refrigerated and frozen foods is advancing steadily at Belmont-headquartered Cox Technologies, Inc.

Products and services offered by the firm can determine the safety and shelf life of seafood and produce as well as frozen foods, and could prove a valuable aid to refrigeration service contractors.

Inexpensive Vitsab® time-temperature integrator (TTI) package tagging, made by a subsidiary of Cox, is being used at points ranging from the origin of the food to the consumer’s refrigerator.

How the Tabs Work

Disposable, three-dot Vitsab tags are employed in the production and distribution chain from the manufacturing or first packaging step to the retail store shelves. They show the amount of time and temperature abuse the food product has been exposed to.

Chemicals that react to temperature exposure within those dots remain dormant until the Vitsab label or tag is applied to the package, and then pressure applied to release the chemicals within the tag. Temperature monitoring begins at that point.

At first, all three dots or circles on the adhesive tag are green. As they are exposed to temperatures that fall outside of a predetermined safe range, the dots gradually turn yellow. If a product or pallet tag shows all three dots green, the product is fully fresh and has a maximum shelf life. If one dot turns yellow, it must be sold within a certain number of days.

Two yellow dots (one remains green) means the product has some quality degradation, still has acceptable shelf quality, but must be sold within a shorter number of days.

If all three dots have turned yellow, the product should be discarded, the company says.

A Measurement of Good Refrigeration

The system essentially increases useful economic shelf life in comparison to simple product dating, Vitsab asserts. “The tags reward good refrigeration and storage practices by confirming extended shelf life beyond that which would be indicated by a date-stamping system, saving perishable foods for consumption.”

In typical food-transit use, the indicators are placed on containers of perishables and travel with them to show the temperature exposure of an entire shipment. High-value perishables may warrant indicators on every individual product container to enable monitoring along the entire “cold chain.”

Single-dot tags are used both to monitor cartons and consumer-packaged products. A color change in the single dot generally tells the consumer (and the store owner) that the product is no longer safe and fresh.

Tags Meet Several Temperature Ranges

The tags come in various temperature ranges to fit applications from frozen foods to refrigerated goods of various categories, including fresh fish, produce (such as lettuce), poultry, beef, milk, and deli meats.

The response characteristics of each label application (24 are currently listed) are factory set. For example, a label for fresh white-fleshed fish, ideally kept at 32°F, might have indicators turning color at four, seven, and nine days, respectively.

Safety ranges are derived from “food technology literature, government regulatory guidelines, Vitsab-sponsored research projects with food suppliers and retail chains, and data created by our customers for their own purposes,” the company says. “In each case, there is a basis for the ideal temperature baseline chosen, and for the duration of the dots.”

The company is working on technology that would allow users to set their own temperature baselines and lifetime indicators. The tags can monitor chilled or frozen foods and other products, are available in time durations from one to 120 days, and meet the time and temperature monitoring needs for not only frozen, fresh, and prepared foods, but also for pharmaceuticals, live plants, and cut flowers.

Sidebar: Nice Fish; But Is it Fresh?

BELLINGHAM, WA — Most shoppers believe seafood stored on ice and sold by a store attendant in a typical “service seafood” counter is the freshest available, but Brown & Cole Stores, a 36-store chain with headquarters here, is helping them learn something new.

In its Thrifty Food Pavilion store in Mt. Vernon, WA, the chain began using Vitsab® tags on fresh fish packages about a year ago to assure shoppers that seafood wrapped and stored in a 35°F case is just as fresh.

Brown & Cole stores operate principally under the trade names of Thrifty, Food Pavilion, and Cost Cutter supermarkets.

“The Vitsab tags enable us to sell seafood as a self-serve item rather than through a service seafood-on-ice arrangement,” Sue Cole, public affairs manager for the company, told The News recently. The store is affixing those tabs itself, but Brown & Cole would like to see packages come from their source with the tabs already attached, because of the cost involved.

A public relations representative for Vitsab said that five other retailers are preparing to implement the system in their stores. Ron Needham, national sales manager for the company, told The News in early June that the system is in tests with “several other supermarkets,” as well as in transport monitoring applications.

— Jim Norland

Sidebar: Real-Time Alert Products on the Horizon

BELMONT, NC — New developments underway at Cox Technologies include new logging products for frozen or refrigerated packages which can “communicate with sensing locations all along the cold chain,” the company reports.

The company is also working on an improved freeze-thaw indicator and continued deployment of its RealTimeAlert™ system, which can trigger telecom messages directed to specific telephone numbers.

Using a direct digital sensor for temperature incorporated on the same chip as circuitry for the logger function, Cox says its evolving technology could “transform ordinary shipping cartons or pallets into ‘smart’ pallets and ‘smart’ cartons.”

An announcement of this new logger product is expected later this month, a company source told The News.

Users of the RealTimeAlert system include supermarket chains and restaurants, both of which can use the CT Telecom Server/Telecommunications system for time/temperature management as well as inventory reporting, Cox reports.

Cox Recorders, another division of Cox Technologies, expects to introduce a specialized freeze-activated indicator this summer. It will be an improvement over presently available indicators, Cox says, which may trigger a signal when a critical temperature is reached in a brief exposure. “If the warming only happens for a short time, there is no compromise to the core temperature of the deep-frozen product,” Cox observes.

Readers who want to learn more about these products can contact the manufacturer at 704-825-8146; www. vitsab.com; or www.coxtechnologies.com.

— Jim Norland

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