What is Cold Chain Package Testing?

Here’s a look at what cold chain package testing is, how it’s done, and why it’s important.

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Transporting temperature-sensitive products is a complex process that can profoundly impact a product’s safety and salability, and ultimately, a company’s long-term performance.

It’s understanding this responsibility that makes testing every part of the cold chain necessary. No transporter can simply start moving temperature-sensitive products without being sure they have the correct people, processes and technology in place. Here’s a look at what cold chain package testing is, how it’s done, and why it’s important.

Package testing vs cold chain validation

To understand cold chain package testing, you need to differentiate between validating the entire system (cold chain validation) and the packaging solutions that form part of that system (package testing). At a macro-scale, transporters need to consider all aspects of the cold chain they are developing, including:

●       Which products will be shipped

●        What the specific requirements are for the products being shipped

●        How many handoffs will there be in the chain of custody (from raw product to the shelf)

●        Which stakeholders will be part of the process

Once you have your cold chain mapped out, there are three components that you need to validate across the whole operation.

Systems validation

Along the cold chain, multiple systems must each work for the product to remain at the optional temperature. “Systems” generally entail multiple steps and/or assets. For example, how a product is unpacked and repacked from one transport vehicle to another. Transporters need to design and test systems before using real products to mitigate the risk of a system failure.

Package testing

Package testing, or package temperature qualification, refers to the assessment of whether a certain container (and its various components) can maintain the desired temperature environment over time and in various states. Packages include a cold storage room, refrigerated vehicle, cooler box, etc.

To ensure that your cold chain is viable and optimal, both your systems and packaging need to pass the tests designed for them.

Materials testing

Another layer of your cold chain testing procedures should include materials testing. Once you have been able to evaluate that a certain packaging solution is optimal for your needs, you still need to perform a “stack-up analysis.” This is to evaluate how the materials fit together to identify any potential risk areas. For example, if your packaging solution needs to be able to seal in gas at a certain pressure, your sealing material will play a critical role. The holistic evaluation of the packaging solution must look at the packaging materials as well as its ability to retain the desired temperature despite various changes in the environment.

Cold chain package tests

Putting systems validation aside, package testing involves putting your chosen packaging products through various scenarios to see how they perform. In many cases, a package that cannot withstand the unpredictable nature of the cold chain will need to be redesigned or replaced.

All along the cold chain, packages will need to maintain the required temperature of the product despite unexpected or unforeseen variables that often occur outside of the controlled testing environment. Therefore, you will need to test your packages against factors such as:

●        Fluctuating environmental temperatures

●        Transit testing, including:

○        Vibration of the package

○        Dropping of the package

○        Compression of the package

●        Altitude testing

Each of these tests attempts to simulate how the packaging will fare against elements in the real world. Design your own tests or employ professional services to conduct the tests for you. However, if you choose to test your packages yourself, you will need to be able to conduct each test with varying degrees of intensity and over different lengths of time which can be complex and costly.

There are professional services that you can use to test your cold chain products. These service providers have numerous controls that they can manipulate to simulate the changing environments that your food packaging solutions will come up against.

Cold chain package testing standards

Thankfully, you will not be alone if you choose to refresh your approach to testing packaging products. There are a number of industry standards and best practices to ensure testing methods are up to scratch. Notably, the International Safe Transit Association ISTA standards are worth looking into:

●     ISTA 7D (Temperature test for transport packaging)

●     ISTA 7E (Thermal transport packaging used in parcel delivery system shipment)

●     ASTM D3103 Thermal Insulation Performance of Distribution Packages

●     ASTM D4169 (Standard practice for performance testing of shipping containers and systems)

●     ASTM D4332 (Climatic conditioning)

The first point in the list (ISTA 7D) is the most relevant for packaging solution testing. The ISTA standards are not meant to be a legal or compliance burden, but rather serve to support organizations to ensure that their cold chain operations are reliable and quality assured.

The standards that you choose to test against should fit the types of products that you are transporting. Bear in mind the temperature thresholds that you should aim to test against:

●        Freezing: 0°F - 32°F

●        Refrigeration: 32°F - 40°F

●        Danger zone: 40°F - 140°F (read more about the danger zone)

●        Hot holding: 135°F

●        Cooking: 160°F - 175°F

Evaluating cold chain packaging

You must be able to track and monitor the temperature of your products within their packaging and transportation environment. This level of oversight needs to be carried through testing procedures and into everyday operations. A valid test must be able to measure the temperature of the package during the test, not just at the beginning and end. Today, highly accurate technological tools exist that can be easily deployed to give the data you need to make decisions about food packaging solutions.

If you are considering designing a new cold chain process, or are looking to update an existing one, now is the best time to test packaging solutions. Explore available technologies that enable you to track and monitor temperature-sensitive products both in testing and in real life.