A chilling thought...

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A chilling thought...
Keeping food and drink at the right temperature throughout the supply chain isn't an especially complex task, but when corners are cut to save costs, problems can arise. Robin Meczes reports.

Temperature-controlled storage and distribution is a complex business but modern fridge and freezer technology means there is little to worry about technically -- as long as you've got the right equipment in the right place at the right time. But such equipment costs money and so poses an increasing challenge for specialist temperature-controlled storage and distribution providers, according to the Cold Storage and Distribution Federation (CSDF).

John Hutchings, chief executive of the CSDF, says the rates that storage and distribution service providers are currently getting from food and drink manufacturers are at about the same level as 10 years ago. And while service providers have been able to soak up some of the effects of that by driving new efficiencies into their operations, it's hard to go on finding new ways to take out cost.

The downward pressure on rates, coupled with surplus capacity on both the storage and distribution sides, means many service providers will be hard pushed to find the money to invest in new equipment -- but new equipment is exactly what many of them now need, says Hutchings.

"A very high percentage of temperature-controlled storage in the UK is now very old -- it's not uncommon to see stores that are 40 years old. So many are facing quite major capital investment in the near future. But rates being what they are, any sensible business will be looking to see if there is really any point in putting in major capital investment," he says.

The need for new investment can only be further fuelled by new legislation expected in the next five years that will ban the use of some of the refrigerants currently used by older stores, warns Hutchings. "We suspect that unless there is major capital investment in many cold stores in the next few years, there could be a real shortage of capacity in three or four years' time," he says.

Despite this, demand for both chilled and frozen storage and distribution services remains in growth. That growth is relatively modest just now in terms of frozen goods (around 2% a year, says Hutchings) as much of the emphasis in supermarkets these days is on offering customers more fresh produce with maximum shelf-life. But it is a trend that could be reversed in the near future as the issue of waste becomes more important, he believes. "We suspect there could be a change-around. There's a lot going on about waste in government circles just now. And while chilled goods often have a fairly limited shelf-life, frozen goods obviously last much longer."

Hutchings' point about the squeeze on rates is also picked up on by Liam Olliff, UK secretary of temperature-controlled distribution association Transfrigoroute. "Rates are low -- it's indisputably been the case for some time," he says. "And as soon as someone sticks their hand up and asks for more, the supermarkets tend to kick them to the bottom of the pile." The upshot, says Olliff, is that many operators are working for little or no profit and only remain in the business because it's all they know.

The other major issue, as far as transport goes, is that of driver training, adds Olliff. "Transport is generally starved of decent drivers. It's even more important in the temperature-controlled sector, however, as there is a steep learning curve for this kind of work. Even with companies that have a loyal and regular driving workforce, there is often a gap in competence when it comes to managing a temperature-controlled load."

Drivers who work on temperature-controlled vehicles have additional responsibilities compared with those who drive ambient temperature loads, says Olliff, including ensuring vehicles are properly loaded (to allow for appropriate circulation of cold air) and operating and monitoring fridge performance.

Problem hotspots

The issue of proper loading is a particularly common problem, he adds. "When you're loading a refrigerated vehicle you have to understand the need for adequate air circulation, otherwise you create 'hotspots' in the load space -- and that could mean the goods getting rejected at the destination or even that goods get contaminated as they warm up."

It's a common problem, he adds. "I've seen it happen dozens of times over the years. An operator complains to a trailer manufacturer that his refrigerated trailer isn't keeping the goods at the right temperature. But the trailer manufacturer finds there's nothing wrong with the trailer. So then the operator goes to the fridge supplier and gets the same answer. Then you find out the operator has been loading the trailer above the recommended level -- so there's been inadequate air circulation."

It's a problem made worse by the issue of rates, says Olliff, as poor rates encourage operators to load as much as possible on to each wagon in order to maximise their productivity on each run.

The other common mistake often made with refrigerated transport is to load a trailer with goods that aren't already at the right temperature, says Olliff. "Quite often, people try to chill the load to the right level using the trailer's fridge system. But although the air in the trailer can be chilled that way, the centre of the load would take a very long time to be affected. That kind of thing can greatly reduce the shelf-life of products." Despite the pressures of just-in-time delivery to maximise shelf-life at the supermarket, food should always be properly chilled before transport, stresses Olliff.

Quite often, however, even if firms do chill or freeze food appropriately in storage, it's subsequently held at the wrong temperature in the marshalling or loading area of the warehouse before it ever sees the inside of a delivery vehicle, according to Keith Goodfellow, principal consultant at specialist warehouse consultancy Logistics Solutions.

Unless a cold store holds all its goods at the same temperature -- and many food stores these days cater for ambient, chilled and frozen products on the same site -- any single marshalling or loading/unloading area is inevitably going to be wrong for some of the product some of the time, he points out.

"Often, cold stores have some kind of vestibule or marshalling area and ideally all storage and marshalling areas should be at the same temperature as the store. But if you're handling mixed temperature loads in your store -- or even consolidating mixed temperature products on to a single roll cage for a delivery to a single store -- there's obviously a problem there, as there is subsequently in the back of the delivery vehicle."

Separate load bays

If you do have mixed temperature products in your store, the only way to ensure individual temperatures are adhered to is to have different loading areas for each temperature band. But that's obviously not always possible or practical, agrees Goodfellow. "People get away with it. They often put ambient temperature product in with chilled for short periods, for example. But ideally, it should not happen and most people try and minimise it."

Another problem with marshalling areas is that keeping them temperature-controlled is an expensive business, especially considering that they will be empty for much of the time. Yet all too often, marshalling areas are constructed at the same height as the rest of the racking, effectively increasing the volume of space that needs chilling.

"You have to have height in the warehouse for the racking," says Goodfellow. "But your marshalling areas only need to be high enough for the load. Often, there's a lot of wasted space there. And where that's the case, companies are often tempted to put racking in and use marshalling areas for proper storage."

Racking can also be an issue in the main body of a cold store, adds Goodfellow. "Often, what people do is construct the warehouse and then consider what racking to put in," he says. "What they should do is design the racking system and then clad around it. Cold stores need air to flow around the top, sides and bottom of any racking so that reduces the amount of storage space you can have if you start with a fixed cube."

Racking also has to be a certain distance away from chilling units if cold spots are to be avoided, says Goodfellow. And particular attention must also be paid to things like door locations and sizes, he adds, if product temperatures are to be maintained consistently and icing is to be avoided around doorways.

Running a top quality cold store certainly isn't just about the refrigeration equipment you've got, confirms Geoff Brown, technical services director for certification consultancy Checkmate International (CMi). Similar thought needs to be given to management control, especially in such areas as hazard analysis, quality management procedures and premises standards, he says. That's why CMi developed its own certification standard for temperature-controlled storage and distribution operations in cooperation with the likes of 3663, Brakes, Sainsbury and Whitbread a few years ago.

"At all stages of the supply chain, problems do occur from time to time. And companies that have a formal quality management system are better positioned to react when they do."

While conditions in cold stores have generally improved in recent years, admits Brown, increasing focus on product traceability and temperature monitoring and control means that firms need the right management systems in place to detect and deal with any problems.

"Given the current legislative environment and the end-to-end supply chain focus, the consistent delivery of technical standards has never been more important," he warns. FM

key contacts

  • CMi: 01993 885600
  • Cold Storage & Distribution Federation: 01344 869533
  • Culina Logistics: 01630 695000
  • Logistics Solutions: 01952 432683
  • Transfrigoroute: 01326 569657

Related topics: Supply Chain, Processing equipment

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