The recession has forced grocery shoppers in the U.S. to place an even greater emphasis on price and value. Therefore, private label brands have become more popular over the past four years, as have discount grocers and club stores. Yet, access to high quality produce and a great selection of fresh food continue to rank high on consumer surveys.
Consumer trends and regulatory crackdowns
In the U.S., the fresh produce industry is valued at $100 billion and growing. More healthy eating habits along with Americans’ desire for fresh fruits and vegetables year-round are big drivers.
At the same time, emerging markets in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East and Africa are adopting Westernized palates, which means more fresh (and frozen) food is being transported, oftentimes over great distances. The easing of trade restrictions and the formation of new free trade pacts is also expanding fresh food imports and exports.
Not surprisingly, longer transit time and distance puts more pressure on fresh food shippers and transportation providers. Profit margins in the food sector in general are already relatively thin, which means it’s imperative to avoid any compromises to temperature or proper handling that can lead to shorter shelf life or complete spoilage altogether.
More advanced refrigerated equipment, storage, and software and technology tools that continually monitor temperature and environment make it possible to support a global supply chain for fresh food. However, there are some glaring weak links in this chain, which are mostly related to cutting corners as opposed to lack of adequate equipment.
Last year, Indiana’s state police began cracking down on hot trucks—refrigerated trucks that transport food in trailers whose temperature exceeds safe limits. The crackdown made national headlines because of the sheer number of refrigerated shipments that were non-compliant. An unusually warm summer exacerbated by steep fuel prices were partly to blame for the high number of hot trucks snagged in the crackdown, according to the state’s law enforcement and public safety officials.
Recently, Indiana implemented stiffer laws that give state police authority to impound trucks that transport food in unsafe conditions and levy steep fines on drivers. The state now boasts some of the strictest food transportation laws in the nation.
In California, tougher rules governing refrigerated trailers, which came into effect on January 1, also have steep fines attached for non-compliance. For example, soon after the new regulation was implemented, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) fined Ontario, California-based Foster Enterprises $300,000 for failing to upgrade its diesel engines on its refrigerated trailer fleet to meet the new emissions standards.
Meanwhile, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is also ratcheting up regulations—and fines—surrounding refrigerated transportation of food as it continues its phase-in.
Advances in equipment and technology
For shippers not willing to sacrifice food safety, the good news is that the latest equipment and technology is making it easier, safer, more environmentally friendly, and even cheaper in some cases to transport fresh and frozen food.
Manufacturers of refrigeration units along with manufacturers of refrigerated containers and trailers are constantly improving their products, from the design and engineering of the cooling units to the insulating ability and performance of the containers and trailers. In addition, other companies are introducing new software and technology to monitor and control temperature and environment.
Indeed, the market for cold chain monitoring tools has plenty of room to grow, according to Tom Chicoine, vice president of business development for Cooltrax.