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Would You Feel Safer With a Robot Behind the Fast Food Counter?

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As children, we watched TV shows like the Jetsons that showed flying cars and robots serving food. While the car companies have so far let us down, robots may soon be preparing and serving food at fast food restaurants. Increased pressure to raise employee wages has prompted chains to rethink their business model and replace these workers with machines. This technology will begin arriving soon but will the food still taste good and be safe to eat?

With fast food workers trying to unionize to their wages to $15 an hour, some employers are thinking less is more when it comes to staffing and plan to completely automate fast food restaurants. It seems impossible to avoid this future but with all of the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses linked to fast food in the last few years, will these innovations be safer than human prepared food or will we be risking our health more than we already do?

The fast food of the future will involve the customer entering their order into a virtual touchscreen interface. Prices could be a little lower as some of the payroll savings may filter down to the customer (I would not hold my breath about this though).

Once the order is entered and payment received, robotic machines in the kitchen will swing into action: cooking the food and and assembling the order, bagging everything, and delivering it hot into your hungry hands.

The technology for this already exists. Burger robots from Momentum Machines have the ability to slice tomatoes, lettuce, pickles and onions right before they are placed on the burger so that they are crisper and more flavourful. The burgers are also freshly ground. The robots then wrap, bag, and send it out to the customer via conveyor to the front.

Unlike their human counterparts your order will be taken correctly every time. It will be filled quickly as these robots work at lightning speed; and because this process does not involve human contact with your food it is less likely to be contaminated. After all, machines do not have hair that can fall in the food or bacteria on their skin like Staphylococcus which can infect food. The best part is that the robot making your food will not have a cold, sneeze on your sandwich, and then wrap it up and hand it to you; as has happened to me on more than one occasion.

A potential food safety issue may arise from the robots' inability to clean themselves. Human workers will need to be vigilant about cleaning them in order to ensure that they are free of food particles which may grow pathogens. The design of the machine is also critically important as illustrated by the 2008 Listeriosis outbreak that resulted in 20 deaths. This outbreak was attributed to "bacteria embedded deep inside slicing equipment ... even though the company followed the rules to the letter, which included cleaning the machines on a daily, weekly and monthly basis." This is a scary thought but hopefully designers of food equipment have learned something since then.

Another potential food safety concern is that contaminated food could slip through which normally would be caught by humans. For example, if the milk packets used in the shake machine were spoiled, a robotic machine would not be able to detect this as they lack a sense of smell. Further, if the produce contained insects, the robots might just happily chop them up along with the produce and serve a super-sized portion (with extra protein) to the customer.

Human workers will be needed to check supplies and wash produce carefully, at least for a while. The taste of these products may not always be ideal either. Robots cannot taste the food to tell if there is enough spice or too much salt in a product; if things go wrong there might be some off tasting products produced but these issues can be avoided if the machines and kitchen are properly monitored by the remaining employees.

When the robotic systems operate correctly, food safety related instructions will be followed to the letter, step by step, which does not always happen with their human counterparts. Therefore, these machines could produce a safer product overall. Automation may be a welcome change for the fast food industry, provided food safety software is properly incorporated into all of the required processes -- at least until that fateful day that the machines decide to follow their human predecessors and rise up against management


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