The combination of concern about food waste and the need for fresh produce suppliers, distributors and retailers to remain financially robust means it is in the interest of everyone in the supply chain to ensure products are not rejected as a result of issues or oversights. Produce Business UK speaks with cold chain technology specialist Sensitech about common problems and the tools that can help businesses improve their performance
Rather than resorting to “finger pointing”, Dr Martin Meckesheimer, Sensitech’s director of global project management, says his company can help businesses who suffer from rejections to turn themselves around and improve.
“We want to provide visibility,” he explains. “Sometimes a distributor will ask us to visit a supplier. They feel like they are having an audit, but in the end the supplier benefits because they deliver a better quality product. Then the distributor and supplier start having a dialogue. That’s when it becomes rewarding.
“Over time, the goal is to move from a system that is less in control to a system that is more predictable, so we have more confidence that the products have the desired quality,” he adds.
Where and when problems commonly occur
There are many factors that can affect the in-transit temperature of food, according to Dr Meckesheimer. Costly oversights for suppliers and buyers can include incorrect packing and storage of fresh produce that is being transported to buyers.
Something as simple as an incorrect arrangement of pallet boxes in a container could, he says, cause temperature variations – such as warm areas in the middle of the stack – that might affect the products and lead to their rejection. “It’s important for cold air to move around all of the surfaces, so it’s vital to consider how pallets are stacked and loaded, he notes.
In particular, some of Sensitech’s fieldwork has observed that “wall loading” pallets and packing pallets too tightly can influence product temperatures. Loading already-warm produce into a container can also be an issue, as can poorly-maintained equipment.
As such, the fieldwork of Sensitech, which now has offices across the world, includes thermal mapping – which identifies the warmest areas in a pallet stack. Once Sensitech’s field teams recognise the cause of a particular problem, they can work with their customers – including suppliers, distributors and retailers – to train them in and develop best practice for improved cold chain performance.
Moving with the product
With that goal in mind, Sensitech has developed temperature sensitive monitoring systems that usefully pinpoint temperature “abnormalities” within the cold chain. The development in 2010 of real-time temperature monitoring devices that can utilise wireless technology has also enabled Sensitech to combine its temperature data with other types of logistics information, including the location of produce.
Dr Meckesheimer explains: “You might have the distribution [of produce] on a truck going from east to west. We can now ‘click’ to the location [of the truck] and get an up-to-date report on the temperature at that point,” adding that the pocket-sized devices are positioned near to the goods so that they “move” with the product.
Sensitech’s technology also enables temperature and other logistics data to be uploaded onto a database. This allows aggregated data to be analysed for trends and patterns that can help identify areas in the cold chain that need improving. “We look at different graphs to arrive at one specific location that makes for problems with temperature control, such as a packhouse,” Dr Meckesheimer says.
To illustrate this process, he uses the example case study of ‘Supplier K’, whose data indicated variations. The Sensitech team looked at where Supplier K shipped to before examining Supplier K’s shipment summaries to identify where the issue originated. “We then got a field team to go on site and look at the particular problems,” he adds.
Dr Meckesheimer also cites a separate case study whereby routine [data] analysis and fieldwork observations discovered that a CO2 charge [used to refrigerate the products] failed to last for the duration of the rail freight shipment. “Based on this information, it was concluded that the CO2 railcars were not adequate to transport this product,” he points out. The company concerned subsequently chose to switch to a different refrigeration method and leaving no stone unturned by turning to real-time data has had the same positive effect for many other fresh produce businesses.
Dr Martin Meckesheimer, director of global project management at Sensitech, spoke about the benefits of real-time data during his presentation at The London Produce Show and Conference 2015.