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Improvements in the cold chain could save the economy billions

cold chain

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, some had identified areas where improvements could be made in Australia’s cold chain. Now, stakeholders are being urged to act, Adam McCleery reports.

As technology continues to evolve, the role of the cold food supply chain has become increasingly prominent because chilled and frozen products that otherwise were limited in their marketability can be transported longer distances.

However, one thing preventing the Australian cold chain reaching its full potential is a lack of processes in place to ensure verification and validation across multiple points in the chain.

Mark Mitchell, Australian Food Cold Chain Council chairman, said the logistical companies and supermarkets were working as best as they can within the current cold chain but the absence of another layer of verification at critical control points was having an adverse effect.

“The cold chain is a quality management system with food safety being the critical overlay,” said Mitchell.

The cold chain refers to the management of the temperature of perishable products to maintain quality and safety. According to Mitchell, each sector of the chain, from the point at which the product is harvested or manufactured, to the point at which it is consumed in the home, shares responsibility.

“The consequences of COVID haven’t really changed too much around some of the pre-existing conditions already in the cold chain,” said Mitchell.

“It has amplified a couple, but essentially our cold chain in this country is the way it is because it has been that way for some time. COVID hasn’t really placed a huge impact on it.

“If anything, COVID put a spotlight on compliance issues, hence we were involved in the early advice at a state and federal level and we had no silver bullets for them because we reminded them that the issues were already there.”

Mitchell said the biggest issue facing the Australian cold chain was the absence of a national regulatory system to ensure a uniform approach to the transport of chilled and frozen goods.

“The Australian standard for asset validation is all voluntary,” he said.

“Therefore, it’s not done as often as it should be. In terms of the cold chain, the handling process of chilled and frozen goods in this country is all around food safety law.

“What they don’t do is recognise world’s best practises in the cold chain quality management system.”

The critical control points along the cold chain, whether the change of custody of a product, transport or storage, present higher risks of breaks in the cold chain, through its nature, and Mitchell believes installing new methods and regulations would go a long way to mitigating those risks.

“There needs to be transparency of temperature. You must manage all those critical points,” he said.

“You can’t validate a product as being safely delivered, or that is has gone through a compliant cold chain, unless you have verification at every step.

“There are great operators doing their bit, but the breaks can happen and when they do it extends down the line.”

In June of 2020, a study by the Melbourne-based Expert Group, for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and Refrigerant Australia, revealed failures in the cold food chain costs the Australian economy billions of dollars in farm gate value.

“It’s almost criminal that one quarter of Australia’s production of fruit and vegetables is never eaten,” said Mitchell.

“This loss alone accounts for almost two million tonnes of otherwise edible food, worth $3 billion. Meat and seafood waste in the cold chain costs the country another $90 million and dairy losses total $70 million.”

As part of a push to overhaul some areas of the cold chain, Mitchell presented to the World Packaging Organisation at the Smart Packaging Virtual Summit in August 2021, to make a call for cold chain stakeholders to become verifiers in a new cold chain culture.

The idea would see verifiers measure product temperature at all points of the chain while passing them on during the receiving and delivery of chilled and frozen goods.

Event organisers said positive comments had been received, with many asking to share the AFCCC presentation.

The points raised by Mitchell were part of an overview of the cold chain, along with an introduction to some guiding principles and requirements the AFCCC believes will lead to more improvement.

The AFCCC also conducted its own field studies to highlight shortcomings in the cold chain and then launched an educational campaign designed to improve the highlighted areas.

“We need to work cooperatively across industry and government to improve cold chain efficiency,” said Mitchell.

“Most of the cold food chain’s problems are human-induced. Technologies and processes already exist that would dramatically cut food losses, but nothing can be achieved while food manufacturers and distribution channels operate in isolation and secrecy.

“They are responsible for a cold risk chain, rather than a cold food chain.”

Mitchell’s words are being echoed by others across the food and beverage industry, including companies that specialise in digital quality control, such as Muddy Boots by TELUS Agriculture, which is also calling for better data and record keeping along the cold chain.

In 2020, the Federal Government announced $50 million in grants to help strengthen the Australian supply chain as part of the $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy.

The funding is designed to help establish and expand accredited product testing capabilities, create free access to product standards, and streamline regulatory reviews and approvals.

The government also set up the Office of Supply Chain Resilience to provide ongoing capacity to monitor vulnerabilities and coordinate efforts to boost the supply chain.

In 2017, the Australian Food & Grocery Council released the Australian Cold Chain Guidelines to help food producers and manufacturers maintain safety and quality in their products during the cold chain transport process.

The 53-page document details 15 critical areas of focus for the cold chain but doesn’t cover every aspect of the manufacturing process before the product is placed in the cold chain.

As Mitchell said above, the guidelines are only advisory. However, they do detail the best way to strengthen the cold chain and some of the breaks in the chain could be the direct result of the advisory nature of the standards and guidelines.

“Customers may have additional or over-riding specific transport standards as well,” the document stated.

“These guidelines are only intended to work alongside such documents and illustrate cold chain issues that need to be addressed.”

The AFGC recommends those involved in the cold chain talk with contractors, customers, and suppliers about the best way to implement cold chain conditions before doing so on an ongoing basis.

The industry group also suggests a continuous review of policies and operating procedures as part of food safety programs.

The constant theme when insiders speak about Australia’s cold chain is an obvious need for a more uniform and less advisory set of guidelines to strengthen the cold chain and prevent the resulting large loss of food to landfill.

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