“Our goal is to make sure that everyone understands the food chains,” explains Ratliff, executive director of SCL. “They differ depending on where they originate—by product and by type of processing, for example. So we are not talking about just one food chain; there are many different food chains involved. What we hope will happen is that the issues causing trouble in any of these chains will bubble up so that we can address problems around quality, safety, energy efficiency and economics. The food passing through these supply chains has to be safe and of the highest quality, while also being economically feasible for the operators and for consumers.”
The U.S. imports about 60 percent of all of the fruits and vegetables that the nation consumes. “So there is an increasing focus on food safety relative to products that are imported as well,” says Ratliff. “The food supply chain is a lot more complex than any other supply chain and the cold chain is the most fragile; the quality of food is dependent on how food products are handled at every touch point throughout the food chain.”
Methods that work in a typical food supply chain do not work effectively in a cold chain because the food is highly perishable and fluctuations in temperature and humidity, mishandling or expired codes can wreak havoc on the quality of the products and, by extension, on customer loyalty, notes Sterling Solutions’ Pacitti. He adds that about 25 percent of product is wasted due to poor handling or the inability to track shelf life.
As to ownership of the cold chain, there is not a single owner, but many. So cold chain management throughout the chain becomes an exercise in integrating the processes required by each participant as the food passes through the participant’s portion of the cold chain. “If you know what the processes are up and down the chain, you can integrate all the processes so there is continuity in cold chain management up and down the chain,” says Ratliff.
The industry strives to deliver safe, fresh, high-quality food products cost-effectively to consumers. However, just one error at any touch point along the cold chain can jeopardize product quality, freshness, brand image and food safety, no matter how excellent the cold chain management practices are downstream from the error.
“Most of the focus of research has been on how you deal with these touches within a facility and they have been one-point solutions,” explains Ratliff. “But every handoff point has to be perfect; for instance, the handoff between production and transportation and between transportation and storage. We felt there was a need in the industry for an entity that would pull all of these groups together to guide cold chain technologies, management processes and methodologies.”
To assure quality throughout the chain, the approach must change from one of inspecting all the food—which is not a realistic solution—to instituting a process that will incorporate quality in the chain. Thus, safety and quality will be consistent, similar to the philosophy of total quality management employed in the automotive industry. “Rather than randomly testing product as it is delivered, it is less expensive to develop and coordinate a cold chain standard upstream starting at the producer and ending downstream at the store,” explains Sterling’s Pacitti.
Common concerns in the industry will be on the Center’s agenda, such as improving supply chain efficiencies, monitoring traceability and quality, minimizing waste and spoilage, and improving bottom-line performance. Cold chain management is evolving into a regulatory tool, notes Pacitti. “It must be done right or the stakes are high.”
The repository of information and research the Center will contain on supply chain management technology and product quality characteristics will have market appeal to cold chain participants. The Center will also promote a deep understanding of the economics relative to the development, production and distribution of perishable foods.
Front And Center: Numerous Opportunities
The Center will collaborate with the industry, academia and the federal government in information sharing and in pilot studies. It will bring value to the industry as well as to all partners of the cold supply chain, Wawa’s Griffith points out. “It will provide research on technologies and processes for us to monitor and improve cold chain efficiencies, which is really critical to the industry and it is something that we hadn’t had before in the industry,” she says.