Avoiding spoilage, bacterial growth, and contamination are a foremost concerns of food safety. However, there are ways to improve the quality and safety of food that may not be as immediately apparent as properly washing and sanitizing equipment. High-quality lighting—made possible on a large scale with the rise of LED technology—improves food safety in a number of ways during the journey from farm to table.
Over the past decade, LED lighting has transitioned from an expensive fringe-player in the realm of industrial and commercial lighting into the ideal choice for efficiency- and safety-minded companies.
Rapid advancements in technology have driven prices lower, and, when combined with utility rebates and energy-efficiency tax incentives, upgrades to LED lighting can be cash flow positive from day one.
When compared to metal-halide and fluorescent lights, LEDs can offer superior energy efficiency and energy savings of up to 50 percent. They also run cooler, last longer, and frequently have a better color rendering index (CRI)—a number which indicates an artificial light’s ability to depict colors as accurately as natural sunlight. Additionally, traditional lighting dims quickly over the course of two or three years, plunging facilities into darkness without routine maintenance. The best LED fixtures can keep facilities at ideal foot-candle levels for up 150,000 hours, more than 17 years of 24-hour use, with little to no maintenance.
While these benefits are important, those in the food supply chain will truly appreciate LED technology for ways in which it improves food safety across a range of facilities, such as food processing plants, cold storage, and restaurants.
Food Processing Facilities
Organizations like the Illuminating Engineering Society and Penn State Extension recommend more than 100 foot candles for food preparation because workers are safer and do a better job when they can actually see what they’re doing. (A foot candle is a commonly used measure of brightness. The average office space and home is typically between 10 and 30 foot candles.)
In these spaces, which are filled with heat-generating equipment, grinders, slicers, and more, lighting should go above and beyond the OSHA minimum. Proper lighting can prevent costly mistakes, such as slip-and-fall accidents and other employee injuries. It can also help prevent employees from dropping or knocking small items, such as tools or bolts, into food processing machinery or raw materials.
Proper lighting goes beyond brightness—high-quality LEDs also provide a higher CRI than traditional lighting, as noted above. Lights with higher CRI will allow food production employees to more accurately spot mold, discoloration, and other defects.
A single incident can compromise food quality and require a costly recall; bright, clear LED lighting goes a long way toward mitigating this risk by increasing visibility and making misplaced items and defects easier to spot. Thus, while LED lights don’t directly increase food integrity in the way an improved sanitization method might, they indirectly improve food integrity by allowing workers and technicians to perform their jobs competently and safely.
Furthermore, LED fixtures don’t use mercury-filled glass bulbs to house their lighting elements. Without bulbs, there is no chance of broken glass finding its way into food. In this way, an inherent feature of LEDs provides a direct safety benefit when compared to previous, glass-covered lighting fixtures. To completely eliminate any chance of debris falling into food, purchase fixtures that feature impact-resistant construction.
Food Storage Facilities
While LEDs provide safety benefits in all food storage environments, their impact is most noticeable in cold storage areas. Traditional bulbs have to warm up to reach full brightness. This can take anywhere from a couple minutes for fluorescents to 15 minutes for metal halides. This warm-up time is even longer in a cold-storage environment—anyone who uses a fluorescent fixture is likely familiar with the dim, purple flicker of a cold bulb. Low temperatures also increase degradation and reduce the overall lifespan of arc-based bulbs.
In storage areas with sub-freezing temperatures, workers often need to get in and out quickly. The inadequate lighting provided by cold bulbs forces employees to either linger in the cold while it heats up, potentially endangering themselves, or perform their work in dismal light. By contrast, LED fixtures provide instant illumination in very cold environments. This allows employees to swiftly retrieve the correct product without endangering themselves or the integrity of the food due to the trips, slips, and spills common to a poorly lit area.
Moving beyond safety, LEDs offer massive energy savings in cold storage areas. The alternative to the lengthy warmup period of arc-based lighting is to simply leave metal halide or fluorescent fixtures on at all times; however, this wastes tremendous amounts of energy in areas that are sparsely used. LED lights already offer a 50 percent reduction in energy costs compared to metal halides when in use, and pairing them with occupancy sensors that turns them off when they aren’t needed can offer an additional 60 percent energy savings.
Unlike arc-based lighting, LEDs thrive in the cold. High-quality fixtures are rated for use in temperatures as cold as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. The average LED fixture’s lifespan already drastically exceeds those of other lights, and studies suggest it may actually be extended at colder temperatures. That’s because excess heat causes LEDs to dim more rapidly, and the cold dissipates heat more effectively.
Food Preparation and Restaurants
Food prep areas at restaurants, bars, cafeterias, and elsewhere also benefit from LED technology. Kitchens are fast-moving and dangerous spaces with knives, slicers, and dangerously hot grills and fryers. Having the bright, clear light of LED fixtures in this often-chaotic environment decreases the likelihood of accidents. Aside from the human toll, such accidents can carry heavy financial costs as well, such as reduced productivity, increased food waste, and personal-injury claims.
Additionally, the high CRI provided by LEDs can help employees identify discoloration when preparing food. The visual difference between a fresh steak and a slightly rancid one can be far subtler than many imagine and almost undetectable in low light. Additionally, proper lighting is an invaluable resource to prevent undercooked or incorrectly-dressed dishes from leaving the kitchen.
Restaurant owners frequently comment that they never noticed how dirty their kitchen was until they installed LEDs. Poor lighting masks dirt, grime, and dust. With inadequate light, chefs may be working on a surface they believe is clean, but LED lighting reveals otherwise. By exposing these deficiencies in sanitation, LED lighting helps chefs and restaurant owners better clean their kitchens. This not only ensures that food is being prepared in the most sanitary environment possible, but it can help boost inspection scores, which most restaurants are now required to post for the public to see.
When shopping for a new lighting solution, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, different spaces need different distributions of light. For example, lighting in a narrow aisle needs to be far more focused than it would be in a large, open warehouse. When researching for LEDs, look for fixtures with multiple lens options offering a variety of light distribution patterns and angles; this will ensure the fixture is suitable for your space.
Second, some food manufacturers’ processes require a very specific kind of light. A brewery, for instance, might need a light that emits at a particular wavelength in order to avoid skunking its beer. With previous technologies, such as low-pressure sodium, metal -halide, and fluorescent, the finer details of light were essentially fixed. With new, cutting-edge LEDs, every aspect of light output can be tweaked: brightness, color, color temperature, wavelength, and more. In fact, light manufacturers can create a custom “light recipe” designed to meet almost any criteria. If you’re in need of a specialized lighting solution, make sure to find a company capable of working with you to create a custom-designed LED fixture.
Look for lighting companies that offer a wide range of financing options, as facility-wide LED upgrades can be a large investment. Some lighting providers may coordinate utility rebates and tax incentives that can reduce the ROI to less than a year. Some lighting companies offer extended payback periods that price payments based on the energy savings the customer obtains. If the cost of a facility-wide upgrade is insurmountable, consider which areas could benefit most from an LED upgrade and start there.
Merits of LED technology include improved efficiency, improved light quality, and improved durability. The ways that these benefits translate to the realm of food safety represents a step forward for the industry and its customers—any improvement in safety is a boost to the bottom line.
Stoike is a writer for Big Ass Light, Big Ass Fans, and Haiku Home.. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.