To most, the term “refrigerator shelving” conjures images of cheap aluminum or plastic fridge shelves in a typical home appliance. Here, shelving is rarely considered critical—it’s just there to hold some cold goods and leftovers.
However, for an industrial food processor, a well-built refrigerator shelf is much more important. The refrigerators used by manufacturers and processors in the food industry come in a variety of shapes and sizes designed to hold different kinds of refrigerated or frozen products/ingredients.
There are a lot of considerations that have to be made when picking out custom refrigerator shelving for food processing operations if you’re going to maximize safety, health, and productivity. Some of these considerations include:
#1: What’s the Lowest Temperature the Shelf Will Be Exposed to?
In many other manufacturing applications, highest operating temp is the biggest concern. However, for refrigeration, it’s important to know the lowest temperature the shelf will be exposed to.
At extremely low temperatures, many materials can become brittle and break under a heavy load. And, with refrigerator/freezer shelving, the shelves are likely to be held in the cold conditions for very long periods of time (day, weeks, or even months).
If the material chosen for the refrigerator rack or shelf can’t take the cold, then it won’t be very useful for prolonged use. Austenitic stainless steels are often used in low-temperature applications of less than -100°C (-148°F).
The USDA-mandated operating temperature for a commercial fridge is between 32 and 40°F (O°C and 4.4°C) while commercial freezers should be kept to 0°F (-17.7°C) or lower. This means that austenitic stainless steel alloys such as grade 304 stainless steel are more than capable of withstanding most food-grade refrigerator and freezer environments.
#2: What Products and Ingredients Are Likely to Come into Contact with the Shelf’s Surface?
Food makers have to refrigerate a plethora of perishable ingredients and products. Sometimes, these items are kept in their own individual containers; other times, they may come into direct contact with the shelf.
Raw meats, fruits, vegetables, and many other items could make direct contact with a shelf in the refrigerator, which could have consequences if the wrong material is chosen.
For example, raw meat may bleed onto the shelf. Semi-absorbent materials, such as many plastic polymers, could soak up this blood and any bacteria contained therein. This can lead to discoloring of the shelf and potentially transferring contaminants to the next piece of meat to be stored there.
Non-absorbent materials, such as steel, can better prevent the retention and transference of contaminants.
However, it’s also important to consider the chemical resistance of the material. Compounds such as tomato or lemon juice are strongly acidic, and may damage some metallic alloys. Also, many processed foods contain salt, which can eat away at many alloys. For these compounds, grade 316 stainless steel is often used because of its higher resistance to acids and chlorides.
#3: Maximum Load Weight Per Shelf
A commercial refrigerator or freezer might have to hold several hundred pounds of product or ingredients on each shelf. Weak or flimsy shelf materials just won’t hold up to these weights. One weak shelf could break suddenly, dumping all of its contents onto lower shelves, the floor, or even unfortunate nearby employees—damaging product while also creating health and safety hazards for workers.
Planning ahead by taking into account the heaviest load any of a food maker’s shelving units will possibly take is vital for ensuring that the shelves don’t break under the strain of holding products/ingredients.
Once again, steel alloys are a popular choice because of their high tensile strength and resistance to impacts.
#4: Dimensions of the Refrigerator
Whether it’s a walk-in, trunk-style, or cabinet-style unit, it’s vital that the dimensions of the refrigerator/freezer are known before ordering any shelving for it. For walk-in refrigerators, it’s important to have a plan in place for walking areas and the setup of other equipment (such as meat hooks for hanging sides of beef) prior to settling on the size, shape, and total number of shelves to use.
If there isn’t sufficient space to allow workers to load and unload shelves or carry product, then the shelving is more likely to impede productivity rather than help it.
For trunk or cabinet-style units, having the exact dimensions of the inside of the refrigerator as well as the method of attaching shelves to the interior is necessary for manufacturing any custom shelving.
#5: Sanitation Considerations
Any food-grade shelving unit has to follow the basic guidelines for sanitation and safety—such as preventing liquids from pooling on shelving surfaces, being easy to clean, and not having nooks or crannies where debris can get stuck too easily.
This is one reason why stainless steel refrigerator racks are a popular shelving choice for cold storage units. The rounded wires of the steel racks easily prevent particulate or liquid contaminants from pooling on the shelf. Instead, these contaminants pass through the shelf.
When electropolished, these racks also become extraordinarily easy to clean—dust, dirt, and microbes have a hard time finding purchase on the microscopically smooth surface.
These are just a few of the considerations that need to be made when choosing a custom refrigerated shelving solution.
Need to know more about how to get the perfect metal forms for making food? Check out our comprehensive list of food-safe metals!