Illegal refrigerants: a new consideration for catering

When looking for a place to dine, consumers are typically focused on the cost, hygiene and the overall quality of the food the establishment offers. In more recent years, they are also demanding that restaurants, bars and caterers demonstrate effective practices around sustainability. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says that one third of the food produced worldwide is wasted every year, and the issue is attracting unprecedented government and media attention. 

The refrigeration systems that food businesses adopt are critical to meeting these four key consumer requirements, as a faulty system can damage produce, harbour bacteria and increase costs. However, they’re often an afterthought only when something goes wrong.

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A number of food businesses unwittingly use refrigeration systems that leak, are ineffective, and emit unacceptable levels of greenhouse gases, partly because they use ageing, high global warming hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) or hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants. 


Fortunately, refrigerants containing HCFCs and HFCs are being phased out globally as part of the environmental regulations. In the EU, an F-gas regulation has begun to restrict supply of HFCs with high global warming potential (GWP) and encourage a transition to low GWP alternatives.

R-404A or R-134a refrigerant have been available in the EU for years and is found in commercial, industrial and transportation installations, however, it is now being phased out by food businesses in favour of low GWP replacements.  

But there’s another important consideration related to refrigerants in addition to GWP. Any food business considering a new refrigerant today must confirm that the product has been legitimately placed on the market. Counterfeiting and smuggling are not words traditionally associated with refrigeration, but sadly they’ve become an industry reality. 

In the EU, illegal products are estimated to make up 20% of the refrigeration market and create 20 million MT of CO2 per year—equivalent to the emissions of four million cars. According to a study by the Environmental Investigation Agency, 72% of users have been offered refrigerants in disposable containers—a clear sign that it is illegal. 

Users of illegal products don’t know what type of refrigerant is in the container, and unknown mixtures can present a health hazard to the mechanics working with them. An illegal product can also impact the performance of a refrigeration system—for example, it can increase electricity bills or damage the compressor, leading to unwelcome repair costs. Moreover, a malfunctioning refrigeration system can lead to food spoilage and can’t be used during a repair.  

There are also legal consequences of using an illegal refrigerant: it’s a criminal offense. Those found to be in possession could be fined or punished with prison.  

The good news? Anyone running a refrigeration unit can avoid the risks of illegal refrigerants by following the seven simple steps below:

  1. Avoid buying on internet platforms 
  2. Purchase your refrigerant from a reputable distributor
  3. Products in disposable containers are a clear indication that the product is illegal and banned in the EU 
  4. Ask about the return process of empty containers
  5. Ask for a certificate of analysis and Material Safety Data Sheet
  6. Request proof that the product has been legally imported into the EU
  7. Check the price: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is 

Food businesses today are faced with a number of challenges: adapting to shifting consumer demands; addressing stringent government regulations; freeing up money to invest in environmentally preferable refrigerants; and—added to that list—being vigilant about the lawfulness of the refrigerant they use. 

Awareness is half the battle, however, and restaurants and caterers that channel that insight and knowledge into a clear plan-of-action will be positioned for long-term success.

By Lee Hermitage, marketing director of refrigerant technology company, Honeywell Fluorine Products Europe, Middle East and Africa

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