Peter Powell

In the July 5 and Sept. 6 issues of The NEWS, there is going to be a lot of talk about food and drink. That’s because the issues will have focuses that deal with the refrigeration aspects of ice machines, walk-in and reach-in coolers and freezers, and all sorts of supermarket systems. Much of the material comes from two major trade shows that took place in May - The Food Marketing Institute’s FMI 2010 in Last Vegas and the 2010 National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show® in Chicago.

In addition to new technologies during the expos, there were also seminars and keynote presentations concerning issues facing the food and beverage industries. And over and over again, a major topic was food and drink safety. And that is a topic that should be of major interest to contractors and technicians because they can have a significant impact when it comes to keeping consumable products at just the right temperature, whether it involves cooling or freezing.

I want to offer some thoughts on this food safety issue based on information gathered at the FMI and NRA expos. For this column I want to focus on the FMI show. For my July 5 column, the information will come from NRA.

IN FRONT OF THOUSANDS

In front of thousands of supermarket personnel, Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of FMI, focused on food safety during an hour-long general session. “I am pleased to report some good news on the food safety front,” she said. “Customer confidence in the safety of food in supermarkets increased to 85 percent (in 2009) - a 20 percent improvement over 2006,” she said.

It was clear that her reference encompassed the food placed in coolers that have to maintain rather precise temperatures to meet federal guidelines - and, most importantly, keep food safe to consume.

She told the audience, “You’ve taken the initiative to make sure food is safe and to build consumer confidence in the foods they buy. It is your comprehensive approach to purchasing the safest food, operating safe stores, training your employees, and educating consumers that makes the difference.”

I don’t know how many refrigeration service techs might have been in the audience, but the term “operating safe stores” certainly applies to any technician working on refrigeration equipment in the store. And “training your employees” pertains to those supermarket chains that have their own in-house maintenance staff and by extension to outside contractors who might be called in to service equipment.

(To this I want to add a side note: While walking the show floor only minutes after the expo portion of FMI 2010 opened, I came across a service tech from HiTech Refrigeration in Las Vegas getting an R-134a display case up and running. Apparently this unit in one of the exhibitor’s booths had gotten damaged in shipment or placement. So the contracting company was called in to do emergency service right on the show floor during the expo. Here the issue was the appearance and appeal of the food products in the refrigerated case, which would be viewed by thousands of very discriminating persons.)

A CAUTION

A sobering perspective tempered all of the attention to food safety during Sarasin’s talk.

“The psychology of the shopper has changed. These economic times have been unsettling for customers and companies alike,” she said.

“People are getting accustomed to being more frugal. No one knows where or how people will undo that sense of caution. To be sure, there are signs of rising confidence. I would call it cautious confidence.

“The economic downturn has caused new shopping and eating behaviors. Everyone has been affected. Price is a key value driver today. And the shift is clear. People are spending less, eating less, and saving more.”

In statistics presented, it was shown that average consumer spending per visit to a store has dropped from something like $98 to around $92.

Less money spent, means less money coming into the store - and, supposedly, less money to pay for needed services including those in refrigeration.

I typically listen to the state of the industry talks with an ear toward contractors and technicians. And what I heard at FMI 2010 is that you are needed more than ever but it may be tough to match pay with worth.

Publication date: 06/07/2010