How safe is your cold chain?
One obvious answer is, only as safe as its weakest link.
But where are the weak links? How much do you really know about what's going on with your perishables as they travel through the supply chain?
A cold chain, simply defined, is "a temperature-controlled supply chain."
More specifically, one source defines the cold chain as "an integrated system of partners and activities involved in processing, transporting and storing temperature-sensitive products from the supplier to the consumer."
A lot can happen to product as it makes its way across these various links and companies have devoted significant resources to trying to monitor the condition of product as it travels to them from vendors, or out to customers.
Until recently, most monitoring methods, such as temperature-sensitive labels and paper-based strip chart recorders, mainly could tell only whether proper handling temperature was violated somewhere along the journey. They didn't report precisely when and where such incidents occurred, for how long, to what degree, or, most importantly, suggest why.
Newer technologies, however, are available which store continuous digital temperature readings that can be downloaded to computers for later analysis and in some cases even alert companies in real-time if temperature specs are being-or are about to be-violated.
With the help of such tools, companies can not only guarantee that a product has been properly handled on its way through the cold chain. They can also pinpoint the time and place of exceptions when they do occur or even step in to prevent their occurrence.
These systems not only prevent the shipping of compromised product to customers. They also provide strategic information that vendors, distributors, stores and contract haulers can use to improve the ongoing performance of their cold chain, helping to enhance product quality and safety and customer satisfaction, while potentially saving millions of dollars in product waste, returns and administrative headaches.
The Stakes Are Big
According to a figure published in Forbes magazine last year, global waste from perishable goods in the supply chain amounts to $35 billion annually. In U.S. supermarkets, perishables account for more than half of all shrink, while temperature-related shrink per-store averages almost $80,000 each year, or $40 million across a 500-store chain. (2003/2004 Supermarket Shrink Survey.)
While retail locations account for a big part of the temperature management challenge, stops upstream in the cold chain also contribute their share. According to a study conducted by Sensitech Inc., Beverly, MA, of all the observed occasions when a product exceeded temperature specs, 30 percent of occurrences happened between the supplier and the distribution center; another 15 percent of violations took place between the DC and store. In situations where product temperature was allowed to fall below spec, 19 percent of incidents occurred between supplier and DC; 36 percent between DC and store.
With fears about food safety heightened by terrorism concerns and what seem like daily escalating reports of product recalls, a variety of legislative proposals are under discussion on Capitol Hill that could eventually lead to some sort of mandated food safety tracking and tracing programs, including possible temperature monitoring requirements.
But most producers and distributors today are not waiting for legislative mandates.
"Retailers are interested in improved temperature monitoring and control, because it offers the potential for significant improvement to the bottom line. At the same time, growers are interested and not pushing back against the investment, because they'd love to find ways to improve their processes and reduce shrink in the product they're handling and shipping," observes Tom Reese, senior manager, business development for cold chain applications with Motorola RFID.