A Matter of Degrees

Today's temperature monitoring technologies help food companies deliver safe, high-quality products.

The cold chain used to operate in a shadowy area. Retailers and manufacturers would wonder if frozen foods were kept at optimum temperatures during shipment, hoping the quality of their products had not been diminished through thawing and refreezing. But all of that angst-ridden and expensive guesswork is passé because technology allows companies to maintain their cold chains optimally, keeping brand integrity intact through fresher, safer and higher-quality products.

In the past, if retailers suspected frozen products had been thawed and then refrozen, they would usually pass their uncertainty back to the manufacturer. “A standard course for manufacturers was to destroy the entire shipment so as not to take a chance on the quality of the brand’s name,” explains Jack Ampuja, president and CEO of Buffalo, NY-based Supply Chain Optimizers.

Assumptions used to be based on the hope that 3PLs were doing their best in cold chain management. “But today it is a matter of ‘show me’ and people want to see actual records of time-temperature management. Companies are demanding intense record-keeping more than ever because the data allows them to act and manage appropriately,” says Ampuja.

The cold chain is an extreme form of supply chain, requiring more attention to process and temperature dynamics, explains Nick Pacitti, CTL, partner with Memphis-based Sterling Solutions LLC, which provides cold chain management services with in its portfolio of logistics services.

“Even the smallest variations in temperature and humidity can and do reverse advances in food science—equating to lost sales along with million of dollars of spoils and endless consumer complaints,” cautions Pacitti. “Firms invest a significant amount of money in product development, consumer testing, and regulatory compliance. So a poorly designed and executed cold chain places everything at risk—even the entire business.”

He adds that the perishable segment is one of the fastest-growing areas where the stakes are high because they involve brand integrity, customer confidence and market share—all of which are at risk in the fragile cold chain.

DRIVEN BY DATES

Manufacturers conduct extensive research upfront to discover the optimal temperature range their products can endure throughout the supply chain to ensure food safety and product quality. Once these limits have been established, the responsibility for maintaining those temperatures throughout the cold supply chain falls on the shipper, the carrier and the retailer, notes Doug Thurston, director of sales for Boise, ID-based PakSense Inc.

“Our products monitor time and temperature and can advise when one or all of those three parties have not followed proper protocol on a product. Having a historical record of time and temperature allows you to pinpoint exact accountability of who was responsible if a product were to go out of spec,” says Thurston.

Companies not using time-temperature monitoring technologies cannot know, manage or fix any variability in their process, notes Barry Eisenberg, vice president of technical services for Salinas, CA-based River Ranch Fresh Foods. “Without data, you cannot possibly know how you are performing.”

To meet the goals of processors, retailers and consumers, temperature standards must be set to accommodate accurate product behavior over extended periods, says Sterling Solution’s Pacitti. “These standards can then be measured in innovative ways that convert data into meaningful and actionable information that can help companies control their processes more effectively.”

Providing time-temperature data to vouch for quality is a veritable insurance policy, notes Elizabeth Darragh, director of food strategic marketing, Beverly, MA-based Sensitech Inc.

“It is far more proactive today to manage the cold chain as part of your supply chain management to assure there are no breakdowns during all the handoff points. As far as quality and safety are concerned, microbes can grow at an astronomical rate just through a minor infraction of the optimal temperature,” says Darragh.

The transportation segment has long been identified as a significant trouble-spot in the cold chain. Common problems include open doors on a hot day, reefer units not running at optimal capacity or too much product jammed into the reefer, hindering proper air flow throughout the trailer.

“I have seen truckers pull into a DC with products that had been transported at the proper temperature only to encounter a long wait at the DC,” reports Thurston. “Serious problems arise if the back door is open while the trucker waits. It’s a shame because up until the truck arrived at the DC, products had been kept at the proper temperature.”

Another critical trouble-spot occurs during the receiving process. “I have seen hundreds of examples where a load of fresh chicken or meat arrives when store employees are busy setting their cases,” continues Thurston. “So those pallets sit at room temperature for hours and this is where you can lose a large percentage of shelf life equating to a number of days.”

Eisenberg adds that River Ranch Fresh Foods uses temperature monitoring in trucks as an insurance policy. “This is the No. 1 use of temperature monitoring devices in the industry. If there is a quality problem on arrival, we always ask for the temperature chart from the recorder that tells us if the quality issue was caused by temperature fluctuation during transportation.”

QUICK DECISIONS AT RIVER RANCH

Thurston notes that PakSense products focus not only on the temperature of the trailer interior, but on the product temperature itself. “The first thing the grower, shipper or packer has to ensure is that their products are pre-cooled prior to shipping. This is extremely important and this is where the cold chain really begins.”

PakSense offers its Ultra Contact Labels and Ultra Contact Readers, as well as a wireless version of the label and reader. “The reason we call them labels is because of their size, which is the size of a sugar packet,” says Thurston.

The popularity of the PakSense solution relies on its small footprint, cost-effectiveness and its easy-to-use design requiring no extensive infrastructure, notes David Light, CEO of PakSense. Users snap the corner of the label to activate units that record five-minute average temperatures. A LED light signals an alert when temperatures go out of range, enabling immediate accept/reject decisions. Wireless units require just a push of a button to activate and readers can access data from 300 feet, downloading data into an MS Excel spreadsheet.

A common problem undermining cold chain optimization is the cold case, which often is not calibrated properly. “A medium-sized retail chain can lose up to several millions of dollars a year in cold-case maintenance and product loss because cold cases break down,” adds Light. “The average worth of a frozen cold case ranges from $15,000 to $20,000.”

To help customers eliminate these kinds of breakdowns, PakSense offers a database monitoring program, Cold Case Monitoring System. “It’s a management tool helping store managers make better decision on when they might want to replace a cold case,” says Light. Wireless labels are placed close to compressors, recording temperatures every minute to provide a record of temperature fluctuations. This database product will be available this fall.

River Ranch Fresh Foods, managing produce harvesting in Salinas and King City, CA, uses PakSense labels to monitor and track time and temperature trends from harvest to arrival at the company’s processing plant. Revenues are between $150 million and $200 million annually. In addition to supporting its own brand, the company is one of the largest private label produce suppliers in the U.S.

Every week, the company produces between 3.5 million to 4.5 million pounds of product, including iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, spinach, cut vegetables, and bagged salads and spinach. “We are looking for trends in consistency or exceptions,” reports Eisenberg. These products are particularly susceptible to quality issues arising from condensation caused by fluctuating temperatures once sealed in a bag.

Eisenberg notes the attraction to PakSense is its small size and ease of operation. “We can operate them anywhere throughout our cold chain. My field managers look for food safety and quality issues. I can give each of them a box of these monitors to apply right in the field, where our cold chain begins.”

River Ranch uses PakSense labels in a number of site-specific applications. For instance, it began a program with two of its major retail customers who wanted to know if the temperature management on their retail shelves was adequate to maintain quality.

“We placed these monitors on their shelves to discover if temperature fluctuations caused some of the condensation and other quality issues inside the packages,” explains Eisenberg. The company also uses PakSense labels to monitor temperature fluctuations in particular environments within its plant and loading docks. “It is a very inexpensive way to get actionable data and to understand the environment better.”

PakSense labels also allow the company to trace back to a specific farm to determine where a quality issue originated.

Eisenberg adds he uses the wireless version of PakSense in cooler evaporators, which sit about 25 feet off the floor. “We stick one of these monitors in there so we can read the temperature from the ground since it’s in a hard-to-reach area.”

ANALYZING TRENDS AT LEGAL SEA FOODS

Boston-based Legal Sea Foods Inc. uses several of Sensitech’s products offering hands-free data management. “Monitoring temperatures and times are critical throughout receiving, storing and processing seafood,” says John Ciarametaro, assistant director of quality assurance, Quality Control Center, for Legal Sea Foods, supplier to 31 of its restaurants along the eastern seaboard.

The cold chain for Legal Sea Foods begins with the use of Temp Tale temperature monitoring devices placed with shipments as they leave the company’s quality control center. “This is of particular concern with our out-of-state deliveries where our products are on trucks for long periods,” reports Ciarametaro.

QuickCheck is a time-temperature monitor used in Legal Sea Food retail stores as a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) informational tool, whose data is downloaded into a QuickCheck Manager reader that produces HACCP reports.

“QuickCheck thermometers are handhelds with a probe that our restaurant managers are required to use to take the temperature of products at certain critical control points—from receiving through cooking,” explains Ciarametaro.

Sensitech’s ColdStream infrastructure is installed in Legal Sea Food’s main receiving facility, where it monitors temperatures of receiving, storing, processing, and packaging rooms to assure products are within spec before they are shipped to the company’s restaurants.

“ColdStream technology has helped us monitor and maintain the HACCP program,” says Ciarametaro. “It allows us to easily see trends so we can figure out why a room might be going out of range at a particular time. We can then examine what was happening in the building at the time, allowing us to use the information to correct the problem and keep it from reoccurring. Sensitech’s technology helps us protect our brand much more effectively.”

Closed-Loop is installed in Legal Sea Foods’ trucks, providing a level of granularity required to analyze time-temperature trends over an aggregate of multiple trips. “It’s another tool to help us avoid problems by diagnosing trends and correcting any issues as they happen,” notes Ciarametaro.

For instance, Closed-Loop can inform companies if they have an equipment problem or if they need to re-train their staff because of fluctuating temperatures. “It might be an indication that drivers are leaving the doors open on a regular basis, or it could be a problem with the reefer cycling,” says Sensitech’s Darragh.

The technology is an RF, mesh-networked environment utilizing a time-temperature recorder mounted in the interior of the vehicle, Darragh explains. The RF reader infrastructure is installed at Legal Sea Foods’ main Boston facility, where trucks deliver fresh seafood from the docks. “Once the truck enters the facility, readers automatically download time-temperature data into our hosted ColdStream database. Reports are generated early every morning and we email automatic reports to Ciarametaro.”

Another application using the same RF infrastructure is Stationery Temperature Monitoring that monitors and maintains optimal temperatures inside cold rooms and preparation rooms. “Our analytics and reporting capabilities allow companies to examine an aggregate over a desired period to see if one shift is doing a better job than another,” says Darragh.

MONITORING COMPLAINTS AT WAWA

Wawa Inc., with $5 billion in revenues annually, has 575 stores throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. It operates three cross-dock DCs located in New Jersey to handle about 300 SKUs: one for refrigerated products, one for commissary and bakery products, and another for dairy products and drinks.

“It is critical that we receive products at the highest optimum quality to assure product safety and quality throughout our supply chain to our stores,” says Jane Griffith, senior director of food safety and quality assurance. Wawa’s headquarters are in Wawa, PA.

One of the biggest challenges facing Griffith rests in the hands of the consumer. “They don’t often practice proper cold chain management, so I have to account for a 20-percentage factor of product abuse.”

Griffith reports that the most fragile of Wawa’s products is its line of fruit cups, which are assembled in the company’s central commissary DC. “All production rooms are maintained at 34 degrees to 36 degrees to ensure proper cold chain management,” she says.

At the receiving dock, employees prod the products using infrared or bimetallic thermometers to assure the products are at the correct temperature. They also randomly test their most sensitive products such as fresh fruit cups, wet salads and dairy products using recording temperature monitors. These products are tested throughout the trailer at the front, middle and in the nose.

Wawa requires all of their high-risk-product vendors to use recording time-temperature sensors from their processing plants or DCs to Wawa’s DCs. Many products are cut and packaged and in the stores within 24 hours after production, and have a four-day shelf life.

The company uses its own trucks, which operate frozen, refrigerated and ambient temperature zones. ThermoKing’s FleetWatch system maintains and monitors reefer trailer temperatures.

“We monitor our store complaints to see if they have any known or perceived quality issues,” Griffith says. “If we see an ongoing problem, we check the store’s display case to assure that the store is using the correct case planogram. We also check back through the supply chain to assure products were kept at the proper temperature throughout.”

Sterling Solutions conducted a cold chain assessment for Wawa initially (about 10 years ago) and continues to conduct annual cold chain assessments.

“They helped us define our processes to ensure we maintain them,” Griffith says. “For instance, they helped us configure the reefer to assure we are using bulkheads correctly to maintain proper temperatures. They also suggested using fans at our loading docks to blow cold air constantly into the trailer during loading. They also assisted with driver training, helping drivers understand the responsible method to take products off trailers and deliver them into the stores.”

So where is cold chain management heading? “It is evolving into a regulatory tool, but more importantly into a supplier- and retailer-specific requirement,” reports Pacitti. “Cold chain standards have proven to reduce food safety risks.”

Ciarametaro at Legal Sea Foods sees continued technological development. “Cold chain management will be used by more and more companies, with more partnerships developing among technology providers and food companies.”

Ampuja perceives greater use of RFID tags. “This is the next wave as costs for RFID continue to decrease. RFID will provide a real enhancement to cold chain management because of the full and complete history it offers from start to finish. People won’t have to depend on data from a number of different parties along the chain because everything will be completely verifiable.”

SQF Certification Helps Solve Cold Chain Issues

More food companies are becoming interested in SQF certification, although only about 10 percent of companies currently are certified, notes John Schulz, director of the Safe Quality Food Institute, a division of the Food Marketing Institute in Arlington, VA. “We began actively promoting the program in late 2007,” Schulz says.

The SQF certification is a guideline developed by firms that have experienced and solved a wide range of cold chain issues, notes Nick Pacitti, CTL, partner with Memphis-based Sterling Solutions LLC. “It provides a faster learning curve based on tried-and-proven practices and the guidelines offer a structured way of thinking about issues that will further provide for a strong, effective, and disciplined system promoting consumer satisfaction, loyalty and continuous improvement.”

Food companies need to demonstrate a set of prescribed practices and compliance standards to assure cold chain control and to validate the process is working, continues Pacitti. SQF certification will guide that process in assisting and guiding firms to have in place eight components, he advises. These include:

• An available cold chain policy;
• Temperature-range stipulation on all
documents;
• Defined acceptance points;
• Product limits;
• Suitable staff training;
• Self and third party audits;
• Rules-based control and monitoring
systems; and
• A formalized validation process to
assure the process works.

Pacitti developed “STAIRS,” six guiding principles for effective cold chain management. “These components can form the basis for SQF guidance development,” he suggests.

Simplify the communication between a company and its providers.

Test: and validate the systems and processes that are not yours.

Avoid the risks and failures in prescribed service and compliance agreements.

Inspect the actual performance and ask if products being delivered are required.

Regulate and modify activities and processes to reduce variance.

Streamline the management of logistics compliance.

SQF offers two codes of compliance—the SQF 1000 relating to all pre-farm foods and the SQF 2000 relating everything from post-farm forward, including manufacturers, explains Schulz.

“We look at everything from product management within the food facilities—such as temperature integrity. We review post-harvest cooling of products and packing at the sheds and we review cold chain management from farm to slaughterhouse to further processing facilities and the cold chain management practiced between facilities,” says Schulz. —A.T.

Cold Chain Management: Monitoring Each Link In The Chain

The cold chain is a subset of the total supply chain involving production, storage and distribution of perishable products requiring temperature control in order to preserve their characteristics and associated value, says Nick Pacitti, CTL, partner with Memphis-based Sterling Solutions LLC.

“Cold refers to the need to control prescribed temperatures in preventing the growth of microorganisms in food while maintaining its wholesomeness through processing, shipping and delivery and display at the store level,” says Pacitti.

The term “chain” focuses on monitoring the chain of custody in which each segment of processing, storage, transport and delivery is linked to the step before and after—with proper documentation, records and visibility throughout the process, explains Pacitti.

The biggest challenges facing suppliers and retailers and other supply chain intermediaries include the inability to set standards properly against product specs; the inability to monitor the standards; the inability to predict when something may go wrong; and the inability to control the cold chain, Pacitti continues.

Improving the cold chain requires three actions: they need to be instrumented, interconnected and intelligent. In stating cold chains should be instrumented, Pacitti means that the temperature of reefers must correlate to product temperatures.

“This correlation must take into account the cumulative average of temperatures over the duration of a load or delivery route,” he explains. “Average temperatures mean very little, as it is the cumulative temperatures that have the greatest impact on product quality and safety. In order to determine these impacts, products must be tested for stability and temperature abuse. Based on the results of these tests, we determine and set the standards for the cold chain.”

Cold chains need to be interconnected to customers, suppliers and IT systems, as well as to products, trailers and other smart objects that monitor the cold chain, explains Pacitti. “Through GPS and RFID, these prescribed temperature readings can be communicated in 10-minute intervals to selected managers. A proactive guidance system can mitigate problems well before they rise to unsafe levels.”

Intelligent cold chains are those with advanced analytics and modeling based on food science and safety guidelines, which will assist managers with complex decisions in practical and efficient ways.

Proper cold chain management depends on each critical link in the chain understanding product storage and handling requirements. Technologies such as sensors, RFID, wireless and wired networks are potential components of a model to ensure an ongoing portable record of each product or its surroundings throughout its lifecycle.

“Information related to the state of the product is critical,” states Pacitti. “Remedy and control are required to ensure that product is not compromised.” —A.T.

Automation Designed For The Cold

You know how your car engine complains when winter temperatures dip below freezing, but imagine the complaints from material handling equipment in temperatures that could be as low as —30 degrees Fahrenheit. Swisslog knows well some of the challenges that occur to equipment having to work in these harsh environments in refrigerated and especially frozen food warehouses.

The Newport News, VA-based company designs and manufactures specially engineered equipment to handle these very cold environments within its Vectura ASRS line. “All of our equipment engineered to work in these cold environments have special characteristics built in to make them operate optimally,” says Brad Moore, vice president of sales. The machines are designed based on a variety of weight capacities and activity rates. They are designed to accommodate a range of heights from 20 feet to 140 feet.

Swisslog’s automated storage and retrieval equipment includes ProMove conveyor systems, Vectura stacker cranes and CaddyPick pick carts. ProMove conveyor solutions bring pallets from a receiving dock into a cold or frozen warehouse, then delivers them to the Vectura stacker cranes that puts the pallets into the racking system. The Vectura cranes are pallet-handling cranes that put product into and out of a warehouse automatically. CaddyPick provides transportation of the pallets for an order picker who picks orders or cases onto a pallet. CaddyPick can follow the picker or vice versa.

The steel used for the bodies of this cold-operating equipment is a special recipe used in bridge construction. “It is a fine-grain steel that is not susceptible to becoming brittle in these harsh temperatures,” Moore explains. “These machines are at times in constant motion with many wear surfaces exposed, which normal steel could not withstand because it would become brittle and crack.”

Another vital challenge is the lubricants used in these systems. “Lubrication used in ambient normal temperature environments would become too viscose and thick for operation in a cold environment,” reports Moore. “So we initially test these machines in an ambient environment before we drop the temperature and then we change the oils, greases and other lubricants to make sure they won’t become a solid at very low temperatures.”

Photo-electronics must be accounted for as well. For instance, Swisslog designed these systems so the photo-electric sensors that see the pallets don’t frost over. “These sensors are feeding the computer information with respect to what is going on so, in some instances, we have to heat the lenses so the computer always has a good view of the pallet,” notes Moore.

Finally, wiring and electrical cables can be affected negatively in these harsh environments. “The insulation, copper and insulated wires have to be able to flex in these temperatures or they can become brittle and crack,” Moore says. In the final analysis, these specially engineered machines deliver a high degree of reliability in very cold environments.

Swisslog’s customers are major food and beverage retailers and grocers. “Just in the last few years, we provided over 400 different units of this type in North America to handle food logistics in refrigerated and cold warehouses,” says Moore. —A.T.

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