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Addressing Increased Consumer Focus on Safety and Freshness

Doug Thurston | Vice President of Sales

Cold Chain-Digital Solutions at Emerson

Half of all U.S. consumers worry about the safety of fresh and frozen foods during transportation to stores. That’s the big discovery from a recent Emerson study.[i] Half of consumers also decide where to shop based on the quality and freshness of their foods.

  • 62% agree better technology has a role to play in keeping their food safe to eat.
  • 56% say better data is needed to track proper food safety practices from farm to table.
  • 51% are less likely to shop from stores that aren’t using — nor having suppliers use — the latest technologies available to keep their food safe.

That’s a wake-up call for food retailers who have not yet made ensuring food quality and safety among their top priorities. Across the United States, grocery stores and supermarkets play vital roles in food production and the supply chain. They’re uniquely positioned to coordinate an interdisciplinary focus on cold chain management, from supplier partners to monitoring shipping logistics.

Starting point: Establish proper temperatures

Effective management of the retail food cold chain often begins with ensuring proper harvesting times in consultation with preferred produce providers and establishing the temperature setpoints for each commodity type.

Respiration rates of harvested produce can be impacted by the setpoints; produce cooling processes can also place excess strain on food products. For example:

  • Pulling heat from products picked in 90 °F heat down to a 33 °F transport temperature is not ideal.
  • The goal should be to limit the variance between picked and storage temperatures.

This is also why it’s extremely important to be able to monitor temperatures in produce pre-cooling sheds.

The age of harvest fields is another consideration. Late-season fields experience excess crop strain; thus, extra efforts must be taken to reduce these impacts after harvest.

Ensuring food safety compliance

Food retailers already are shifting to more proactive prevention in order to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This federal law gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to mandate comprehensive, science-based and preventative controls governing the safe storage, handling and preparation of food throughout the supply chain.

Grocers can take additional steps to help ensure compliance, such as:

  • Establishing a corporate food safety specialist and placing quality control (QC) experts in distribution centers (DCs) and/or logistics operations
  • Investing in technologies that enable the continuous collection of data related to food safety and providing the necessary documentation to validate these initiatives on request

Keeping up with e-commerce fulfillment

Not only did COVID-19 permanently reshape consumers’ buying habits, retailers’ responses to new consumer behaviors also introduced food safety challenges. Chief among them are:

  • Chilled fresh and frozen goods for click-and-collect fulfillment must be kept within their optimal temperature ranges throughout in-store picking, order staging and customer pickup.
  • Direct-to-consumer deliveries have the added responsibility of maintaining temperatures in delivery vehicles.

In both new fulfillment models, grocers must make extra efforts to mitigate improper handling or cross-contamination risks.

What’s next: Steps to enhance safety and quality

Meeting these new customer expectations can require additional effort and investment. This is not a time to bend food safety rules or skip best practices to save money. Cutting costs almost always backfires by creating shrink and introducing potential safety risks.

Instead, grocery retailers can take steps to help ensure better food safety and quality. Start by establishing a temperature-monitoring program. Maintaining tight temperature setpoint control for all types of fresh and frozen commodities is a key factor in preserving freshness and enhancing safety.

Retailers also should plan for any scenario that can occur during fresh and frozen food’s journey from farm to fork. Without that planning — and coordination by retailers with their food providers and shippers — the likelihood of shrink and food safety risks will only increase.

 

[i] Emerson, “Emerson Survey: New Food Safety Technologies Rising in Importance for Consumers,” December 1, 2020, https://www.emerson.com/en-us/news/corporate/food-safety-survey-2020 (accessed May 17, 2021).

Nine Best Practices for Ensuring Food Safety and Quality

Doug Thurston | Vice President of Sales

Cold Chain-Digital Solutions at Emerson

Food retailers have long focused on ensuring food quality and safety; now consumers are increasingly concerned about these issues as well. In a recent Emerson study of 1,000 U.S. consumers, 51% said they:

  • Worry about the safety of fresh and frozen foods during transportation to stores
  • Would be less likely to shop from stores that aren’t using the latest technologies throughout their supply chain to help ensure food safety

So the challenge for retailers has become how to meet these consumer expectations while also protecting their brand reputations. The solution? Adopt best practices that enable them to maintain strict temperature adherence for fresh and frozen products at every step of the food supply chain.

Preserving Quality and Minimizing Loss

Delivering poor-quality perishable products or past-ripe produce only erodes customers’ loyalty and gives them a reason to switch to different brands — or shop at a competitor’s grocery store. So temperature control for quality (TCQ) initiatives throughout the cold chain are critical to maximizing freshness and minimizing shrink.

If produce becomes too ripe — from poor temperature control or time-of-harvest conditions — it will naturally have a shorter shelf life. Pre-conditioned fruits such as avocados should be carefully monitored to ensure they are continuously kept at the correct temperatures.

Maintaining Proper Temperatures for Safety

Keeping shipping temperatures at precise setpoints throughout the journey from farm to fork is critical to ensuring that food is safe to consume and also preserving perishable food quality. Temperature control safety (TCS) initiatives are mainly concerned with the safe shipping of fresh and frozen meats, seafood, select produce and dairy products. If temperatures deviate from safe ranges or become too warm:

  • The safety of fresh and frozen meat along with seafood will degrade
  • Product will purge (or release water) initially, then begin to grow and spread bacteria, which increases the risk of foodborne illness

Cross-contamination can also occur when meat, seafood and produce are stacked together closely within a transport shipping container or arranged on a stack of pallets — which increases the potential for foodborne illness outbreaks and customer injuries. Improper sanitization procedures between loads can also lead to cross-contamination.

Nine Best Practices for Perishable Food Transport

So how can grocery retailers ensure food safety and quality?

A holistic approach that considers key factors at every step of the perishable supply chain must be followed along with careful coordination among producers and shippers. Here are nine best practices for retailers to adopt from inbound harvest and transport to outbound shipping and receipt from distribution centers (DCs):

  1. Pre-cooling: Stabilize product temperatures with a process after harvest and prior to loading in refrigerated shipping containers.
  2. Transport refrigeration: Ensure proper refrigeration and insulation of reefer trucks and trailers.
  3. Inspection: Visually inspect trailers between loads to ensure a clean and contaminant-free space.
  4. Temperature stability: Maintain continuous setpoint temperatures throughout a trip; do not permit the use of fuel-saver mode or starting/stopping of refrigeration.
  5. Calibration: Annually calibrate the thermistor(s) of reefer trucks and/or trains.
  6. Loading: Correctly load pallets to enable proper airflow and consistent temperatures from the front to the back of trailers.
  7. Load transfer and receipt: Do not allow trailers to sit in receiving docks for extended durations, especially in warm regions; limit opening of trailer doors to maintain holding temperatures.
  8. Avoid mixed loads: Avoid trying to save fuel costs by mixing loads with a combination of fresh and/or frozen products with different ideal temperature setpoints.
  9. Data logging: Enable the automatic capturing and recording of trip temperature data for reporting and verification of quality assurance and to help resolve disputes or questions over rejected loads.

Pick an Expert Partner for Cold Chain Management

Protecting consumer safety is an ethical prerequisite for food retailers. At the same time, it’s important to remember that it only takes one incident to permanently impact your business reputation and potentially incur the significant financial impacts of fines and litigation. That makes it imperative for retailers to clearly understand everything that contributes to food quality and safety throughout the food supply chain. Then, they should partner with an expert to help them deploy the modern tools and technologies needed to address the many challenges associated with perishable cold chain management.

 

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