Catering for safer restaurants

Major international fast food chains, including KFC and McDonald’s, are showing interest in a UK-led European project designed to spot potential health hazards.

The EU-funded project, IMOK (Intelligent Monitoring Of Kitchens), uses an array of sensors that monitor catering equipment such as refrigerators, and alert the kitchen manager of anomalies, such as a fridge door being left open. The intelligent kitchen would have all its appliances networked, and the system could be remotely monitored and controlled via the internet.

A number of special sensors for measuring pressure and temperature are positioned around the kitchen, monitoring appliances such as hotplates and freezers. a control screen displays readings for each appliance and can alert staff or an engineer via e-mail or text message when readings for any single appliance falls outside set parameters. The control interface provides real-time data and is configured so staff can interact with results on screen.

The project has been worked on by a consortium of European businesses, led by Hampshire company 1st Millennium Electronics. The researchers claimed widespread use could slash incidents of food poisoning across the EU.

Project co-ordinator Stephen Read of 1st Millennium said: ‘A build-up of unhealthy bacteria is largely due to cooking or storing food incorrectly. A problem faced by fast-food outlets is keeping food at a constant temperature, which is not possible if fridge doors are left open.’

As part of the project, the team tested both hardwired and wirelessly-networked connections to the internet. While wireless connections are more convenient and less disruptive, researchers had to be careful in the design to ensure that the system did not interfere with other applications such as microwave ovens.

The system can be networked to a Local Area Network (LAN) or Wide Area Network (WAN) so that an area manager of a fast-food chain could monitor the kitchens on a regional basis. The first system could be in restaurants within about a year.