One of the most important (and most challenging) factors in the safe transport of food is timing.
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Agricultural products like produce and meat have a particularly short window for safe transport before they pose a health threat, but they’re not unique in this regard; any food item is susceptible to timing concerns. Even packaged food products and dry goods like cereals and grains have expiration dates, and the longer they’re in transit to their destination, the more risk they’re exposed to. Improper handling—such as inadequate refrigeration or too much moisture in shipping containers—can cause spoilage, waste, and food poisoning.
Our understanding of the safest conditions for food transport continues to evolve, shaping the development of regulations and industry best practices. Food safety laws such as FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act and the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius keep pace with new developments, and individual food production companies implement new internal practices to ensure safe and successful transportation of goods. Following these regulations and best practices requires extensive communication at every step and with every party involved in the process.
However, much of the communication about specifications and timelines is still done the old-fashioned way: using paper documents or phone calls. Not only is this inefficient, it’s also prone to error. That’s why many food distributors are looking to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to strengthen and streamline their quality control processes.
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An ERP system serves as a central electronic database and communication tool that all involved parties can access. The shipping conditions (such as packaging, temperature, and vehicle preparation) required per customer or per food type can be saved in one location. These requirements can be used to generate tests and checks for personnel to complete during loading or unloading. Results and records of these operations are stored electronically via mobile devices, making it easier and faster for supply chain managers to create audit trails or to prove compliance with regulations. The accessibility and efficiency offered by an ERP can prevent most communication-related quality control issues before they arise.
While the goal of full, real-time visibility into the whole supply chain is probably at least a few years away, widespread adoption of ERP technology can get the logistics industry one step closer, saving valuable time while still ensuring every safety measure is met.
Ripening En Route
Timing is a key factor in getting any kind of food to consumers for safe consumption, but it’s especially crucial in the cold chain. Strict guidelines about packaging, labeling, and transportation have been developed to prevent widespread foodborne illness. Though much of the focus on disease prevention targets animal products (especially deli meats and soft cheeses), fruits and vegetables bring their own kinds of risk. Overripe or damaged produce is highly susceptible to decay or infection. While packaging and handling precautions can minimize damage in transport, ensuring that food arrives at the correct ripeness for consumption can be a tricky undertaking.
Some produce items—like citrus fruits, berries, and watermelons—do not ripen on their own after they’ve been harvested. These crops need to be harvested at or near the peak of ripeness, which makes long-distance shipments more time-sensitive. However, some fruits—such as avocados, bananas, and most stone fruits (except for cherries)—ripen naturally after being harvested. Growers and distributors take advantage of this by harvesting these items before they’re ripe and allowing them to finish ripening while in transit. For these fruit items, efficient transportation and climate control measures like refrigeration and ethylene controls can help reduce the risk of over ripeness or spoilage in transit.