The human brain is an incredibly complex organ consisting of over 80 billion neurons with about 1 million gigabytes worth of memory storage. With so much hardware, it’s no wonder we sometimes face shortcomings in our perspective of the world. In his bestselling book “The Tipping Point” Malcom Gladwell reminds us that, while we are accustomed to thinking of change as something that happens gradually over time, every so often change happens exponentially and at a fast pace. The looming question in my brain is how the potentially rapid changes facing the retail food industry in the next 10-12 years are slated to affect risk of foodborne illness transmission. 

What kind of changes you ask? 

Domo arigato Mr. Roboto, the answer lies in robotics and automation. Machines like “Flippy” and “Pepe” are being developed that flip burgers and prepare pizza, respectively, thus mimicking the manual dexterity and precision required by a food handler to accomplish the same tasks. The cost of these advanced forms of technology continues to decline as well, making a solid business case amid mandated minimum wage hikes. Foodservice workers spend almost half their time doing tasks that have the capacity to be automated. Some industry analysts predict up to a third of all food prep jobs could be lost to automation by the year 2030. 

The end result could be significantly fewer hands touching our food in the retail setting. Human hands have an instrumental role in contributing to risk of foodborne illness transmission and foodborne illness outbreaks. The human hand can be responsible for transferring pathogens from raw to ready to eat products via cross contamination. Without consistent, effective handwashing, harmful microorganisms may accumulate in the transient flora of the hands, prone to spreading to food contact surfaces or the food itself.  

If “Pepe” does the plating, then that means less bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food. If “Flippy” is at the grill, then computer code will ensure spatulas that handle raw hamburger will never handle cooked hamburger. Risk boils down to the consistency of a robot, programmed to execute a task the same way each instance, versus spending time and money to train workers to execute food safety behaviors they may not feel like doing because they’re having a bad day. 

Mind you, this is one scenario of many that may play out in the next decade or so. Robots do not necessarily spell gloom and doom for the average foodservice worker, nor are they the magic bullet to achieve zero risk of foodborne illness transmission. 

Despite dramatic increases in automation over the 20th Century, the number of jobs relative to the number of people actually increased. Echoing the Lyndon B. Johnson administration from over a half century ago, “..technology eliminates jobs, not work.”  Rather than being replaced, food service workers may simply experience work reallocation. As seen in restaurants like Panera, more automation can drive demand for more jobs by increasing efficiency, leading to higher volume of sales. Workers are assigned to tasks less conducive for automation like delivering food to tables or interacting with customers to create positive in- store experiences. 

But then this raises another question of risk, revolving around the law of unintended consequences. With more employees in a restaurant, how might this affect spread of Norovirus? The recent report put out by the CDC links this pesky virus with a significant number of outbreaks. Norovirus transmission isn’t limited to bare hand contact with food, but could occur through secondary transmission of human hands touching food contact surfaces; we know norovirus is resilient on common kitchen materials like stainless steel. 

Alas, these are all untested hypotheses that will be accepted or nullified by the sands of time. Only time will tell whether greater use of robotics and automation in retail food service will be a tipping point to affect food safety for the better. 

*References available upon request

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