The produce and floral cold chain is a uninterrupted storage and distribution temperature-controlled system. A given temperature range is maintained to extend and ensure the shelf life of produce and floral products. It involves the transportation of temperature sensitive products through logistical planning to protect the integrity of these shipments. Approximately 40 percent of all foods are refrigerated at some point and 15 percent of global energy consumption is devoted to refrigeration. (Energy Efficiency in the Food Cold Chain)
A cold chain is the interaction between these three areas:
- Product: A product requires specific temperature and humidity conditions. These conditions dictate its transport.
- Origin/Destination: The respective locations of where floral and produce are grown and consumed. Because of advances in cold chain logistics, it is possible to use increasingly distant sourcing strategies.
- Distribution: The methods and infrastructure available to transport a product in a temperature-controlled environment which can involve reefers, trucks and warehousing facilities.
The cold chain is a science, a technology and a process. It requires the understanding of the chemical and biological processes linked with perishability, it relies on technology to ensure appropriate temperature conditions, and it is a series of tasks that must be performed to prepare, store, transport and monitor temperature sensitive products. (The Cold Chain and its Logistics by Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom)
About 70 percent of the food consumed in the U.S. is handled by the cold chains yet 25 percent of all food products transported in the cold chain are wasted each year due to breaches in integrity leading to fluctuations in temperature and product degradation. Supply chain integrity includes proper packaging, temperature protection, and monitoring. Innovations in packaging, fruit and vegetable coatings, bioengineering, and other techniques help reduce the deterioration of products.
Temperature control in the shipment of products has continued to rise in relation with international trade. Several technologies are closely interacting in a sequential manner to support the cold chain:
- Monitoring: Devices and systems monitor the condition of the cold chain, such as temperature and humidity, throughout all stages.
- Storage: Key technological innovations for storage are better energy efficiency technologies that enable the facility to maintain a range of temperatures.
- Terminal: Since a growing quantity of cold chain goods are shipped internationally, transport terminals such as ports are dedicating areas to cold chain logistics.
- Transport. A range of transport technologies are available and have been improved to transport cold chain goods. Reefer vehicles and containers are among the most common technologies being used.
Many of the innovations in the cold chain are due to sensors and proper data analysis. Wireless sensors that detect temperature in containers, trucks and refrigerated shelves that are battery-less and maintenance-free are being placed into existing IP, Wi-Fi or mobile networks that process data. The energy-harvesting principle – gaining energy from the surrounding environment – allows wireless modules to work without batteries and cables. In a cold chain monitoring system, temperature data from self-powered sensors are used to alert when temperatures approach thresholds and investigation or maintenance of the cooler is required. The information is sent to a central controller or even as a push notification to a smartphone. This enables the user to react in time before the cold chain is interrupted. In addition, this data, collected at thousands of containers, can be consolidated to find potential gaps in the temperature-controlled supply chain for an optimized logistic process.
Connecting the sensor system to IP provides ways to reach out and control temperature from virtually anywhere on the globe. It allows centralized, or even outsourced computing resources (cloud-based computing), thus driving down infrastructure cost. Cloud-based computing resources enable the integration of external information; for example, a local weather yielding an optimized cooling environment. This information is provided to the remote controller, enabling precise control. The same system that monitors temperature can also be used to ensure that only the actual needed amount of energy is provided, driving down energy waste and costs. Continuously collected data in the supply chain could improve food quality and significantly reduce loss.