Maintaining Cold Chain Integrity

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...


While there’s a perception that harvesting, processing, and transportation methods in developing countries are inferior to those in the industrialized world, that’s not necessarily the case, Crombie points out.

“In my experience, preparation of the box [reefer container] that is going to be handling food cargo is all done very responsibly, whether it’s in a developed country or not. Companies are very conscientious about their responsibility to maintain cold chain integrity. Hygiene at every stage of the food supply chain is vital, including the box itself,” he says.

The banana trade from Central America is one example. “In Costa Rica, there are endless numbers of banana plantations. All of the major fruit brands are there. They have their own people on the ground conducting temperature and other quality tests and assuring quality all the way from the growing cycle through to the transportation and distribution.”

Bananas are cut, washed in cold water to get the temperature down, and put directly into the reefer container at the plantation, says Crombie. Once the fruit is in the container and it’s powered up, the equipment is able to maintain a highly stable and consistent environment, despite the outside conditions, which may begin with a two-day drive on poor roads to the seaport followed by many days on the water.

“The level of control over the reefer for long distance cargo is remarkably good,” says Crombie. “There’s no break in the cold chain, even during loading and unloading. The refrigeration unit has a very elaborate electronic controller that records everything that happens during the transportation process. Shippers can monitor the condition of the cargo starting at the plantation all the way to final delivery, even if the cargo is on the water for weeks. Arguably, there is better temperature control on long distance marine voyages than on five-day coast-to-coast truck moves.”

Building a better box

Ocean cargo transportation has evolved significantly since Malcom McLean conceived the idea for an intermodal container in 1956. Not coincidentally, Thermo King introduced the world’s first refrigerated container that same year.

In recent years, advancements in the reefer container have single-handedly made it possible to support global food supply chains.

Of course, the ongoing quest to enhance food safety and quality are the perennial drivers.

Referring to the banana trade, Crombie says that for every hour the fruit sits at the ambient temperature, for example 83 degrees Fahrenheit, it ‘costs’ one day in shelf life.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to get that temperature down as fast as possible,” he emphasizes. “Thermo King’s machines are very powerful in terms of their ability to cool down cargo quickly. The MAGNUM reefer is the best on the market for getting cargo cooled down quickly and keeping it as close as possible to the ideal carrying temperature. This accuracy is key to improving shelf life.”

The MAGNUM can maintain a -35 degrees Celsius set point and unlike traditional units, which are effective in moving deep frozen products for the first 5 years, the MAGNUM offers enough cooling capacity to maintain -29 degrees Celsius throughout the 15-year life of the box. This not only makes the container more profitable, it also eliminates repositioning charges for deep frozen shipments.

Two years ago, the company introduced the next generation MAGNUM, called the MAGNUM PLUS, which offers improved energy efficiency.

“Once this reefer gets the cargo down to the ideal temperature, it’s very careful as to how much energy it uses to keep it there,” Crombie explains. “On average, a traditional reefer draws five kilowatts, compared to the MAGNUM PLUS’ 1.7 kilowatts, which translates to a sixty-plus percentage reduction in energy consumption, while at the same time providing better temperature control and [temperature] pull-down.”

Aside from continual improvements in reefer technology, including temperature and humidity control, Thermo King is hoping to drive more shipments from air cargo to more cost effective alternatives, namely ocean and rail.

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