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.
Promising new technological advances, such as wireless sensors that can detect spoilage in produce containers, present exciting potential for the future of safety in the food supply chain. In the meantime, preventing damage or unnecessary exposure to pathogenic conditions requires food companies and transporters to stay vigilant. This means shortening the supply chain wherever possible to reduce the time to market and ensuring that each step in the cold chain adheres to temperature and climate controls.
More Localized Distribution Centers
Like many other links in the global supply chain, food distributors are starting to take a page from Amazon’s logistics playbook. Over the past decade, the e-commerce giant has pioneered and (more or less) perfected an alternative to the traditional hub-and-spoke model favored by most large-scale logistics operations. Instead, their decentralized model relies on moving distribution centers closer to the final user, allowing for quicker deployment and shorter shipping times.
With its acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon has signaled its plan to apply this method to food distribution as well. By treating each Whole Foods store as its own distribution center, Amazon has been able to pilot two-hour delivery at many of its stores while maintaining food quality and freshness.
For competing food companies, following this model may look like finding or building more food-grade warehouses in emerging markets to bring food closer to the final customer. This will certainly require more investment, but it will shorten the last leg of transportation, which is key for maintaining the freshness of food products.
For non-agricultural products, this method may also mean moving the final steps of food manufacturing closer to the end location. For instance, some beverage manufacturers currently ship syrup or juice concentrates using bag-in-box methods, outsourcing the blending and bottling processes to smaller, more localized facilities. In addition to reducing the amount of necessary shipping capacity, this method can help ensure products arrive in consumers’ hands at peak freshness.
Working with Outside Experts
One of the biggest logistics challenges food suppliers face is finding carriers that are reliable and transparent enough about their processes to ensure the safety of the products in transit. Each category and type of food has unique shipping requirements that need to be adhered to, and the consequences of failure to comply can be severe. With regular news stories of recalls and public health scares, the potential damage to a company’s reputation makes these concerns very real.
In addition to the challenge of finding quality carriers, sourcing enough capacity is also a pain point for many food supply chain managers. This problem can be especially pronounced for time-sensitive food shipments during peak season. Take cherries, for example; every September and October, air capacity is completely saturated carrying cherries from California and the Pacific Northwest to China, where there is a huge, enthusiastic market for the fruit. Finding capacity to transport cherries (or any other food product) during this time can be extremely competitive, as shipments are often booked far in advance of harvest.
For both of these common issues, it can be useful for food producers and distributors to outsource all or part of their logistics puzzle to a third-party logistics partner. By turning over the most challenging elements of the supply chain to an expert, shippers can expand the network of trustworthy carriers available to them. And far from simply managing the nuts and bolts of moving freight, an experienced logistics provider can ensure every carrier is compliant with global safety and regulatory requirements.
As an example, when CAI Logistics moves frozen seafood, the temperature in the container must be kept at -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the key steps to make that possible include pre-cooling the refrigerated truck, checking the temperature before loading, using temperature recorders to make sure that the product remains frozen, and conducting check calls periodically so that driver is on track for pickup and delivery.
Food Supply Chain of the Future
The expansion of the global food trade in the past several decades has allowed the world’s population to gain access to a wider variety of foods than ever before, but there are still many difficulties to address in the coming years. The strategies food distributors currently use to get food to its destination safe for human consumption aren’t foolproof and require a fair amount of human vigilance. But potential future technological solutions show promise for increasing visibility and speed to market while minimizing the threat of illness.
Papworth is President of CAI Logistics—North America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.