Each year, 7,500 people die and 100 million are sickened by food-related illnesses — and considerable blame falls on sloppy handling of the cold chain.
When product is out of its proper temperature zone long enough, bacteria grows exponentially, negatively affecting taste and potentially causing illness. Let’s examine some of the weak links in the cold chain, and then examine what we can do about them.
First, here are nine common causes of trouble — all of them avoidable.
1 Manufacturers loading out ‘hot’ product onto trailers because they are running late with production. Product is not allowed to chill properly and the pallets of merchandise are loaded onto refrigerated trailers with the hopes that the product will reach the correct temperature by the time it gets to its destination. This problem occurs regularly with beef, poultry, and dairy products.
2 Drivers hauling refrigerated and frozen loads shutting off the refrigeration units while enroute to the food distribution center to save money on diesel fuel. They turn the unit back on when they get close to the final delivery point.
3 Frozen and refrigerated product being received onto docks that only hold 55 degrees. The product is left on the dock for an extended period before it is put away.
4 Product being received without a proper temperature check to verify its condition.
5 Not holding correct temperatures in storage areas or the warehouse. Many companies compromise temperature for cost savings. For example, ice cream should be kept at -20 F throughout the supply chain to maintain quality and taste. This means it needs to be in a deep chill area of the distribution center and should not be stored with other frozen products where temperature is 0 F.
6 Combination deliveries loading. Temperature-controlled product is picked and stored on the dock waiting to be married with the rest of the load. The dock is an ambient temperature zone. Within 15 minutes, product damage begins.
7 Combination deliveries. Many food distributors ship multi-temperature pallets in a single temperature trailer seeking to control costs of delivery rather than investing in multi-temperature trailers. The attitude is: “It’s no big deal! The product will regain proper temperature at the retail store.”
8 Stacking product outside the temperature zone at the store. For example, the dairy manager doesn’t feel like returning five cases of extra milk to the storage cooler so he or she stacks the units on top of the milk in the case. Or, frozen Thanksgiving turkeys get stacked above the top of the case.
9 Abuse by the consumer. The consumer buys temperature-controlled products, packs them in paper bags, and places them in the car trunk. It’s July and the temperature outside is 85 F. On the way home, he or she does a few quick errands to save time. Result: product temperature goes up significantly, bacteria grows, and quality of the product deteriorates or it spoils altogether. As the leader of a well-respected food company or retailer, what should you do? The answer is simple — Do the right things and make sure you do things right! Making the appropriate changes will cost money and may not yield increased sales right away, so making the necessary investments may be tough to justify financially.
But failing to step up can make people seriously ill and open you to lawsuits. You also face the possibility of negative press, including consumers sharing information about their bad experiences via YouTube, blogs, Twitter and e-mails. Negative press easily translates into lost sales and lost customers. In an era of heightened consumer interest about food, there’s a significant opportunity to build trust by ensuring that temperature-controlled products are handled properly.
Here are seven recommendations for you to consider:
1 Require proper documentation to ensure temperature integrity throughout the cold chain for every shipment. That means temperatures of every pallet are verified prior to loading. Temperature gauges are required to be with every load. Upon delivery a read out is printed for proof of performance.
2 Insist on temperature checks on every inbound pallet load. At least three pallets should be completed, one from the rear of the trailer, one from the middle and one from the nose.
3 Have all inbound deliveries reviewed for temperature, rodent infestation and product quality by a professional quality control expert. Where appropriate, perform cutting tests to make sure the product specifications received match the product specifications ordered. The category manager should not overrule the decision of the QC manager.
4 Conduct an audit of the food distribution center/retail store to make sure all refrigerated/frozen areas hold temperatures correctly. Large, visible thermometers should be displayed on the docks, and in each room of the facilities.
5. Always use multi-temperature trailers when needed. Make the investment and use the equipment whenever appropriate. Construct delivery routes which enable like temperature products to be shipped correctly.
6 Invest in education. Make sure the logistics/ retail team is trained about proper product temperatures for all merchandise handled in the building. But don’t stop there — make an effort to educate the consumer as well. Retailers have a great opportunity to provide in-store educational materials, post information on their websites, and/or offer classes to teach consumers about issues with temperature-controlled products.
7 Sell reusable, insulated bags that can be washed, and tell consumers it is important to keep them clean. Recent studies have shown strong microbial contamination in reusable shopping bags because consumers never wash them.