Almost every restaurant, grocery store, or food-serving establishment has a walk-in cooler. Usually called “cooler” or “walk-in” this is an actual refrigerated room for storing meat, produce, prepared foods, and other items that must stay chilled. A cooler is not a freezer and is not intended for frozen foods.
A cooler in a small eatery may be no larger than a pantry while a cooler in a large food operation can be bigger than several rooms combined.
Coolers play a critical role in food safety and maintaining the cold chain. That’s why cooler maintenance and storage is the source of many food safety violations.
Safely storing food in a walk-in cooler.
According to the USDA, two different types of bacteria are found in refrigerated food. Pathogenic bacteria cause food sickness. It grows rapidly in the temperature danger zone between 40° and 140°F. Spoilage bacteria cause the deterioration of food resulting in bad smells and tastes.
One focus of a health inspection is to check on how the food is stored in the cooler. Most coolers are lined with wire shelves, which should be NSF approved. It’s important that foods are properly labeled, stored, and placed on the shelves to prevent cross-contamination.
Fresh produce and prepared foods should be stored on the top shelves. Raw, thawing, or marinating meats and poultry should be kept on bottom shelves away and below fresh produce and prepared and cooked food. Bottom shelves should be at least 6 inches off the ground for cleaning and to prevent contamination with floor dirt. No food products should be stored on the floor.
Fruits and produce can be damaged if stored too close to the cooler’s fans. Many produce items can be damaged if stored in a cooler, including bananas, tomatoes, and basil leaves.
Labeling foods and containers are also important. Labels should show not only what is inside a container or wrapped up, but also the date it was stored and the date it must be used by. The FDA created a handy chart of refrigeration and freezer storage limits.
Meeting your state’s health code regulations.
The R.W. Smith Company, a cooler retailer, provides some helpful tips with more details on storing foods in a commercial walk-in cooler:
- Place items on shelves to allow for proper airflow and circulation; do not overload units or block vents
- Organize similar products together such as dairy with other dairy products, produce with other produce, etc. so it’s easier to remember where items are stored
- Properly wrap foods and label each with the date prepared or received
- Always refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours
- Keep all prepared foods in sealed containers or cover with aluminum foil or plastic wrap
- Follow the FIFO inventory management rule: First In, First Out.
- Habitually check for spoiled foods and discard food after seven calendar days
- Ensure your walk-in’s thermometer is accurate to within 2°F.
- Store food at least 6 inches above the floor to prevent contamination
- Store uncooked meat, fish and poultry on bottom shelves to avoid juices from leaking on other items
- Eliminate bacterial hazards by maintaining stable and safe internal temperatures at or below 38 – 40°F
- Regularly monitor and log internal equipment temperatures
- Routinely, wipe down shelves and mop walk-in cooler floors
The health inspector can ding you for a variety of walk-in cooler issues.
Another retailer of food equipment, U.S. Cooler, has posted a list of some of the most frequent walk-in cooler health code violations. A violation is no small matter. It can lead to fines, closing the business …and loss of your job!
- Lack of an interior release mechanism inside the cooler door preventing an employee from opening the door from the inside
- Spoiled or improperly packaged food
- Spills or pieces of food
- Mold forming in the walk-in cooler
- Thermometers not working or the walk-in is not at the proper temperature for food storage
- Improper organization or obstructions, making the cooler hard to service or clean
- Ceilings and walls not constructed of cleanable materials
- Rust on the panels or floors.
- Ready-to-eat food items held in a refrigerator longer than 24 hours or not labeled with a use-by date
- Lights not working
- Worn door parts such as gaskets
- Roaches or other pests living inside the cooler, gaskets or drain line
Get certified in food safety in your state.
Health code regulations for coolers vary from state to state. That’s why if you are looking to get certified in food handling safety, you need to find a course that meets your state’s requirements.
The Learn2Serve Food Handler Training Certificate covers food safety issues, regulations, and techniques to maintain a food-safe environment. You’ll get an overview of food safety issues, regulations, and procedures to maintain a food-safe environment that meets your states health code regulations.
The best part is that the course is online and ready to go! Enroll today and start learning now.