Commentary | Viewpoint

Tracking Tools Protect Food Shipment Freshness

Tags: Logistics I.T., Temperature-Sensitive Goods

Kevin Payne is Senior Director of Marketing, Intelleflex, 877-694-3539

Managing food safety can be difficult in the best of conditions. From the field to the retailer, food comes in contact with soil, water, pallets, vehicles and a variety of other materials – any of which can introduce human pathogens into the food chain. Meat, seafood, poultry, and fresh fruits and vegetables are the highest-risk products, in part due to their water content. Sampling each item of produce, meat, or seafood for bacteria as it moves through the supply chain is impractical, but by more carefully managing sanitation and processes, shippers can reduce the risk of food-borne diseases and easily identify at-risk products.

Proper temperature management throughout the supply chain can play a key role in helping to reduce or prevent the growth of human pathogens, because pathogen growth accelerates at higher temperatures. For example, organisms like e. Coli, Listeria, and Salmonella have the highest growth rates at temperatures in the 86 to 104 °F range, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Growth of these organisms is minimized at the lower end of the temperature spectrum, or just above freezing.

The best cold supply chains provide the ability to maintain these temperatures throughout processing and shipping. But, even in the best of situations, things can go wrong. Consider the variety of conditions that products can experience as they move through the supply chain. Fresh berries or leafy greens could be harvested in the middle of a hot summer afternoon in Mexico, then shipped via a variety of vehicle types (refrigerated and otherwise) to a packing house. This trip could take minutes or hours. Once it gets to the packing house, it could sit on a loading dock for an extended period of time.

Then distribution and a multiple-day journey from Mexico via ship, plane, or truck to a grocer need to be factored in. Trucks can break down. Flights can be delayed. If left in the back of an unrefrigerated truck or on a hot tarmac, a pallet of food can reach optimum or even maximum temperature for bacterial growth. But, if the product is again refrigerated, how will you know that a temperature issue occurred? How would you know the product may be at risk?

Implementing temperature monitoring – beginning in the field at harvest for produce or at manufacturing for processed foods – and continuing through packing and distribution to retailers can help identify conditions that can be more conducive to pathogen growth and identify pallets and containers that represent higher risks. It’s also important to track temperature at the pallet or bin level, rather than taking a single temperature across an entire truck trailer or container, because each pallet or bin has its own unique temperature profile, and the variations from pallet to pallet can be significant enough to make a difference.

New pallet-level temperature monitoring technologies are helping to address these problems. Cost-effective wireless temperature monitoring tags can be placed with each pallet of product or even built into the pallet, tote, or bin itself. This approach provides a simple, cost-effective method for ensuring that each pallet has been properly handled throughout the cold supply chain, and provides a complete electronic record of the product’s quality and freshness at delivery. The retailer or food service provider, by checking the temperature record, can identify at-risk product, versus a product that has been properly handled. It also makes it easier to document where issues have occurred and to improve processes.

Pallet-level temperature monitoring has other benefits that can help reduce risk and spoilage. Since temperature can be monitored on-demand throughout the supply chain, impending temperature issues can be identified before they become real problems, alerting food handlers to re-chill a container to prevent further temperature increases. In addition, because the tags are wireless, they can be easily read without changing operational processes, simplifying deployments.

Even with the best of efforts, it’s impossible to eliminate all of the variables in the supply chain. Delays occur, and equipment breaks. But, by proactively monitoring the pallet-level temperature of fresh, frozen, and packaged foods, growers, producers, shippers, and retailers can not only more effectively manage the quality and safety of products as they move through the supply chain, but they can also document quality at delivery.