We often hear how the food chain needs to synchronize more than ever to improve the accuracy of their business data and the efficiency of their processes. In cold chains, a bit more specificity is needed in that data must be spot-on accurate in terms of product condition and shelf life considerations. This requires a combination of science, process and technology.
Without the right combination, technology alone is limited as proven by the 25 percent waste factor created each year in the fragile cold chain. As hard as it to fathom, some of the best technologies cannot nudge the waste factor. For perspective, over 100 billion pounds of food, or more than a quarter of the 400 billion pounds of edible food, is spoiled each year.
Compounding this challenge is the fast-paced, short-lived perishable supply chains in which products can flow from source to customers within a matter of weeks, days, and sometimes hours. These concerns have everything to do with not only accurate data, but data that is relevant to what needs to be tracked and monitored. As the food chain is about time and space, it is also about time and data. What is grown is as important as where it is grown. What is processed is just as important as how it is processed. What is tracked and monitored is just as important as how it is tracked.
However, when all of these considerations and controls are put in place, we continue to see spoilage and disputes. Many times, there are hot spots along the food chain that begin the spoilage process. The real challenge is when products are exposed to intermittent and/or gradual lapses in cold chain controls where cumulative quality degradation is less obvious and seldom detected. This insidious phenomenon represents the most abuse as the vast majority of loads do not monitor product condition. These gradual or intermittent lapses contribute to shelf life reductions and, in some cases, outright spoilage as products arrive at a distribution point or in a store’s merchandiser.
The use of challenge or stability testing can simulate real-life operating conditions in measuring spoilage bacteria against time and temperature trends. The food testing firm Eurofins, based in Des Moines, Iowa is well known for their work in correlating spoilage bacterial levels to time and temperature controls. Once the stability of a product or products is known under a host of environments, cold chain technology can play a significant role.
Indirectly, the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) signed into law January 2011 will have some effect as it mandates rigid plans for monitoring and taking corrective actions for the growth of food borne pathogens and other contaminants. By law, processors must perform a hazard analysis of their facilities and distribution assets to identify potential areas that jeopardize food safety, and to then determine what preventive controls to put in place. According to Tom Chicone of Cooltrax, a cold chain technology firm, HACCP requirements compel food handlers to construct internal plans in managing and controlling food safety processes. A host of technologies can be applied in providing dependable monitoring and management of critical control points, of which time and temperature are critical components.
Cold chain technology vendors represent advancement in the protection of perishable foods. They are designed to manage and verify real time temperatures and safety parameters surrounding refrigerated perishable goods throughout the supply chain.
For example, Cooltrax has created a tool that provides a real time view of the entire cold chain process from harvest to point of sale. As a Web-based solution, HACCP plans can now go well beyond the plant walls. All of these elements are now priority mandates within the regulations of the new food safety act. With real time alerts and reporting, Cooltrax offers an automated management capability to support HACCP plans while providing electronic verification for regulatory inspections.
HACCP automation and validation has been a monumental challenge beyond the plant and now that chasm is beginning to close. The use of cold chain technologies are now breaking out of their classic temperature monitoring limitations where their value is now being seen in minimizing or eliminating delays and disputes within the cold chain. Just as importantly, technology such as Cooltrax is realizing millions of dollars in annual operating savings in being able to remotely control reduction of pre-chilling hours, fuel consumption, and reefer operating hours. As diesel fuel ratchets up to $5 per gallon, every hour of reduction in the use of the mechanical refrigeration unit can be substantial for any size reefer fleet.
Cold chain technology is going well beyond temperature monitoring. It is enabling the use of engineered standards for refrigerated fleets in predicting and controlling how much energy is needed for various types of refrigerated loads. Refrigerated fleets of all sizes can now operate in standardized and more efficient ways. From product protection to automated HACCP compliance, through to more efficient operations, cold chain technologies are about assuring public health and brand loyalty.
Nick Pacitti is a partner with Sterling Solutions and is a co-founding member of Georgia Tech’s Integrated Food Chain Center.