“Nearly all food retailers have specific quality assurance specs that must be adhered to by the transportation providers,” Biesterfeld says. “Using the lettuce example, if the receiving spec stipulates a temperature range between thirty-four and forty degrees and the product arrives at forty-one or forty-two degrees, there’s a high likelihood that it will be turned away.”
The tough economy also means that some carriers are trying to get extra mileage out of their trucks and trailers, adds Biesterfeld.
“The overall age of the fleet is older today than it has been at any other time in the past, which can lead to more mechanical problems, breakdowns, and other issues that can compromise the cold chain.”
Admittedly, the decision to purchase new equipment becomes tougher for many companies in a down business cycle. But, the good news is that trailer manufacturers are unveiling new equipment offerings that are dramatically improving their long-term value.
Great Dane Trailers’ ThermoGuard is one example that stands out. The product consists of an exclusive glass reinforced thermoplastic reefer interior liner that helps maintain the insulation capabilities of the trailer.
Most refrigerated trailers in use today are insulated with polyurethane foam, which is lightweight, cost effective, and versatile in the manufacturing process. And, while it offers excellent insulating performance at first, the foam loses its ability to insulate effectively as the trailer ages. The degradation also adds to fuel costs because the trailer’s cooling unit is forced to work longer, and therefore consumes more fuel to keep the trailer at the desired temperature.
By contrast, ThermoGuard can potentially reduce cooling unit run time by more than 1,000 hours over a five-year period. It’s also incredibly thin, strong, and lightweight compared to traditional trailers—up to 200 pounds lighter. Great Dane’s ThermoGuard trailer is also constructed from recyclable materials, which boosts its environmental attractiveness.
At the same time, software and technology tools that can improve visibility and monitoring of the food supply chain is becoming more affordable, notes Biesterfeld.
Temperature-recording devices that can be placed inside a trailer can cost as little as $25, he says.
Furthermore, advances in the TRUs (transport refrigeration units), and increased use of GPS and GPRS-based technology that can track and monitor truck movement and conditions inside the trailer are allowing shippers and receivers to actively manage the cold chain, says Biesterfeld.
In fact, active cold chain management is “one request we’re hearing from our customers more frequently. They want the ability to impact in-transit temperature at any point (of the transportation move),” he adds.
Global food chains add complexity
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, between 10 and 15 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. is imported. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables—and 80 percent of the seafood—consumed by Americans are sourced from outside the U.S.
Food exports from the U.S. are also on the rise with new and sizeable markets opening up. In November, India’s government voted to allow more direct foreign investment in the country’s huge retail industry. The move is a major victory for global giants like Walmart, Carrefour, and Tesco as well as the food sector in India, which stands to benefit from huge investments in food storage facilities and the overall transportation network.
Simply put, the food supply chain—and by extension the cold chain—is becoming more global. Price, variety, and the ability to maintain the cold chain for extended periods are helping to drive the trend, says Dermott Crombie, vice president of global business and marine solutions for Thermo King.
A typical coast-to-coast truck move in the U.S. takes five days. “But if you’re talking about kiwis from New Zealand, for instance, you’re now looking at 6 weeks,” says Crombie. This time frame takes cold chain management to a new level, he says.
Although a considerable amount of U.S. food imports are sourced from NAFTA partners, a growing portion is coming from developing countries, especially China, India, and countries in Eastern Europe.