Maximizing Food through Cold Chain Development
The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on cold chain, which refers to the temperature management of perishable products to maintain quality and safety from the point of slaughter, harvest or manufacture through the distribution chain to the final consumer. Whether it was due to supply chain disruptions or distribution of vaccines, consumers suddenly became aware of what had previously been a relatively unknown industry.
Prior to the pandemic, attention to the cold chain had risen in the donor community and within the public sector due to the role that food loss and waste play with climate change and the persistent challenges of food security. Cold chain is rightfully considered one of the leading solutions to preventing food loss because an integrated and properly managed cold chain increases shelf life and quality for perishable products.
That said, cold chain is not a simple fix nor is it a panacea. As the name implies, cold chain is not simply cold storage; it is a series of related links within a supply chain that begin on-farm when the product is harvested. Precooling, refrigerated transportation, refrigerated storage and proper storage and handling at retail are all needed to keep products safe and maintain their quality. An integrated cold chain requires investment in basic infrastructure along with substantial capital and enhanced knowledge of operational best practices for the logistics of perishable products. It takes time and continuous improvement, and for the investment to be realized, substantial quantities are required.
In addition, because cold chain begins at harvest, best practices for proper postharvest handling must be in place. Placing damaged or bad products into cold storage will not improve it. It can prevent further degradation if the products are stored under proper conditions, but the loss of quality cannot be restored.
Now that the critical importance of cold chain is recognized, what comes next? The following details some of the lessons that we have learned at the Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA) as cold chain develops in emerging economies. First, there are important roles for government, academics and the private sector to play. For government, regulations and consumer education on food safety and the important role cold chain plays in keeping food safe are critical. Without consumers demanding a safe, healthy product, there is no incentive for the private sector to make the necessary investments.
Cold chain is more than infrastructure. Once a facility is built, operational best practices will ensure it is run efficiently (and at lower energy consumption). Universities can work with the private sector to develop training and education on the cold chain. Associations can play a role in building this capacity as well. The GCCA has developed a cold chain management training program that is led by private sector and academic specialists. It is currently delivered at two locations in the United States and at one location in Mexico.
Finally, the necessary investments must be made. The donor community has begun working closely with the private sector to support these investments, which has helped to reduce risk. What is interesting to watch is how different models may be developed and applied in different locations. The cold chain that emerges in Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic or Nigeria may look different from the facilities developed in the United States or Europe. There has been a long focus on innovations, but working with those startups beyond idea conceptualization to facilitate commercialization is a long process that may exceed a donor’s timeline or appetite for results. Low-cost solutions should not be neglected because starting small can make a big difference.
While the pandemic underscored the importance of cold chain, events over the past couple of years have also highlighted the critical need to address food insecurity within communities worldwide. Cold chain is necessary for this, but its existence will not ensure it happens. To help address some of the challenges faced by the food insecure, GCCA has launched a new member initiative. Although some members have formed relationships with food banks and other food redistribution groups in their communities, these relationships are often driven by the specific individuals and have been ad hoc. In addition, there are educational resources and training generated by the GCCA regarding perishable commodity storage, transportation and operational practices that might be of service to groups working in this space, either helping them to operate more efficiently or simply providing them with quick answers on best practices for storage. At present, GCCA’s Food Maximization Initiative is a starting point to cement the relationships between the cold storage industry and the food banks and other community groups. There is now a free membership type for groups, which will enable them with access to GCCA’s network and the existing resources. Each group that signs up receives one-on-one attention to showcase the materials that GCCA anticipates being the most useful, and to ensure they know how they can reach out when specific needs arise. It is the plan that the initiative will grow and take shape over the next years, and we have additional ideas for what this might look like. For now, GCCA and our members are ready and willing to assist where we can.
About the Global Cold Chain Alliance
The Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA) unites all partners to be innovative leaders in the temperature-controlled products industry. Comprised of its Core Partners, including the International Association of Refrigerated Warehouses (IARW), the World Food Logistics Organization (WFLO), the International Refrigerated Transportation Association (IRTA), and the Controlled Environment Building Association (CEBA), GCCA represents all major industries engaged in temperature-controlled logistics.