Managing a food supply chain has inherent challenges that require all players in the supply chain to adhere to stringent operational practices in order to ensure the product is safe for consumption once it reaches the end consumer. When fresh or frozen foods are being transported, especially in a global supply chain, the procedures and equipment needed to maintain the integrity of the cold chain are elevated to a more critical role.
Food safety and quality are drivers
Two issues that continue to drive best practices for managing the cold chain are food safety and food quality, according to Bob Biesterfeld, director of transportation, produce sourcing, for C.H. Robinson.
“From a legislative standpoint, we’ve had different versions of the Sanitary Food Transportation Act in place since 1990,” he says. In general, the regulations assure that certain requirements related to food transportation are being met along the supply chain from shipper, to carrier, to receiver.
Among other responsibilities, the shipper is charged with inspecting the equipment that will transport the product to the final destination.
“Typically, the shipper is looking at the condition of the trailer to make sure the walls are in place, that there are no holes in the roof or floor, and that the trailer is ‘clean, dry, and odor-free,’” explains Biesterfeld. “In addition, some food shippers will contractually require their carriers to meet certain guidelines through legal means. For example, they will contractually require the carrier to certify that the trailer hasn’t been used to haul refuse or hazardous material.”
Carriers, likewise, are also responsible for the quality and the condition of the trailers and equipment that are used during the transportation of food products.
The receiving party, too, has equally rigorous requirements and SOPs (standard operating processes) for inspection of food shipments, Biesterfeld says.
“For produce deliveries, that could include physical inspection of the product as well as the boxes and cartons. Wet or weakened packaging may indicate that there was a breach in temperature during transportation.”
It’s also increasingly common for the receiving party to rely on temperature-recording devices that have been installed on the trailer, which can alert them to any deviations from the required temperature range.
Government regulations alone aren’t the only factor pushing improved food safety and quality, however.
“Clearly, food safety has become a more important issue in the minds of consumers in recent years, in part because of several high-profile food illness outbreaks,” says Biesterfeld. “Additionally, food quality is very much related and equally important.”
There’s a direct correlation between maintaining the integrity of the cold chain and the shelf life of food products, notes Biesterfeld. And while science can support the correlation, the economic realities brought about by the recession means that on occasion, food quality goals are more difficult to achieve for some in the supply chain, including transportation providers.
“Sometimes the carrier will be instructed to run a refrigerated unit at a continuous setting, where the refrigeration unit remains in the ‘on’ position in order to maintain a set temperature throughout the life of the load,” explains Biesterfeld. “But, that’s more expensive for a carrier compared to operating the refrigeration unit in a ‘start/stop’ mode, which turns the reefer unit on and off to keep the load within a certain temperature range.”
This can have unacceptable consequences for some shippers, such as a lettuce shipper, who expects their shipment to be maintained at a constant 36 degrees Fahrenheit.
“If a carrier chooses to use a start/stop setting on that reefer unit, the air temperature could reach 42 degrees, for instance, which could potentially impact the quality of the product,” says Biesterfeld.
Not only that, there’s a good chance that the shipment will simply be rejected.