Temperature abuse in the cold chain is arguably the biggest risk to ensuring product quality and safety. Increasingly, market demand has heightened the importance of uncompromised food safety and quality as it travels through the cold chain and ends up in the foodservice industry or with the consumer. Couple this with the growing all-year-round dependence on fresh fruits and vegetables from an increasingly health-conscious society and the movement of perishable goods becomes a formidable challenge.

The importance of shelf life

Typically, a product's shelf life is defined as the time after production during which a food or drink product remains acceptable for consumption. Assigning a shelf life is a complex task as products can encounter a range of fluctuating temperatures as they pass from manufacture to consumer storage - and temperature abuse is just the start of many considerations when assigning a shelf life. Other factors that need to be considered include seasonality, raw materials, microorganisms, heat processing, and packaging.

Food products begin to deteriorate the moment they are harvested or slaughtered, so cold chains need to ensure food is kept at the optimum storage conditions so that shelf life, and therefore commercial potential, is maximised.

The storage temperatures for refrigerated foods may vary greatly and fluctuate during manufacture, distribution, retail sale, and home. As storing foods above optimal temperature reduces their shelf life, storing at temperatures below optimal may also cause damage such as discolouration and improper ripening.

Impacts of temperature abuse

When looking at perishable foods, in particular, temperature control is essential, not only to maintain the microbiological safety and quality but to minimise changes in the biochemical and physical properties of the food. When the temperature rises above the desired level for a given period of time, the product will be thermally abused - the greater the temperature abuse, the greater the potential for microbial growth.

Post-harvest temperature abuse is a pressing issue for fresh foods, a trial conducted for the Muddy Boots Cold Chain Management pilot predicted that over $100 million worth of products in the trial experienced temperature abuse each year.

Trip graph highlighting temperature fluctuations outside of optimum levels during transport.

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Challenges in identifying temperature abuse

Effective cold chain management requires technology to remotely monitor temperature and alert stakeholders to temperature abuse. Remote monitoring will drastically reduce loss and ultimately extend shelf life through real-time alerting and proactive management of temperature fluctuations.

Current solutions are based on the assumption that the ambient temperature products are stored at equal the actual product temperature—yet ambient temperature can vary from the actual temperature by up to 2°c. Until very recently, there has been little innovation in the sector, with marginal advances in monitoring technology.

Common challenges cited by cold chain managers include:

  • Lack of visibility
  • No clear path for escalating issues
  • Costly resources, not strategically applied
  • Inability to rate severity of issues
  • Slow time to respond

Cold chains that still rely on a mix of manual and semi-automated systems are hampered by potential inaccuracies—yet, in a system where the temperature and timing measurements are mission-critical, such inaccuracies cannot go unchecked.

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