Post-pandemic food cold chain challenges

cold chain

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed several shortcomings in the global food cold chain. In the aftermath of the pandemic, investment in the cold chain is necessary to maximise access to food and reduce waste. Emphasis should be placed on enhanced flexibility as well as a more digital, data-driven supply chain.

Challenges for the food cold chain during the pandemic
During the government-mandated lockdown in Europe, demand for refrigerated storage exploded. Indeed, the closing of restaurants and other food service providers forced vegetables and meat suppliers to store unsold products while seeking new buyers. By June 2020, over 90 percent of cold storage facilities in Europe were full.

Furthermore, consumers have shifted away from restaurants and catering to food retailing. In France, sales of frozen savoury products increased by 60 percent from mid-March to the end of March, compared to the previous year. In the United States, online grocery shopping doubled in March 2020. A survey from the US census bureau indicates that 46 percent of consumers intend to continue shopping online (including perishables) after the pandemic.
Consumer shift from food service to retail has revealed the urgent need for flexibility in the cold chain. So far, the cold chain is fragmented with little to no compatibility between different providers and platforms. Farmers are linked to grocery stores by one cold chain and to food service providers by another.

Investing in a smarter food cold chain
Greater connectivity is needed to offer real-time information and improved visibility on the location, condition, and handling of perishable cargo at any given point in the cold chain. During the pandemic, the creation of temporary food hubs using data and e-commerce, for example, proved effective in distributing food in urban areas. For example, in Milan, Italy, the “Food Aid Systems” provided food to the elderly and vulnerable by converting a food bank into a logistics centre, creating seven temporary food hubs with expanded storage, and converting minibuses for food delivery.

Carrier proposes that cold chains should develop to become more data-driven, allowing information sharing through digital technologies. It would become increasingly common to re-route products based on real-time supply and consumer demand. Additionally, disruptions caused by weather or pandemics could be moderated, and partners could share location, temperature, and other critical measurements of in-transit products from farm to consumer. Such a “digital supply chain” may potentially lower procurement costs by 20 percent, reduce supply chain process costs by 50 percent and increase revenues by 10 percent.

Obviously, the creation of a cold chain requires investments in equipment, personnel, and information systems alongside refrigerated warehouses. However, the expertise to assemble these assets already exists, the costs are predictable and the financial returns attractive. The benefits in terms of food security and climate would also be incalculable.

Cold chain to reduce food losses
In an informatory note, the IIR estimated that a more efficient cold chain could potentially feed 950 million people per year. For now, 13 percent of all food produced globally is lost due to lack of refrigeration, mostly in developing countries.

In India, a pilot project sponsored by Carrier, has improved the cold chain to reduce post-harvest losses. The project was designed to measure the impact of cold storage and refrigerated transport on kinnow, a small citrus fruit grown in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. Kinnow is best preserved at 4-5-degree C. Prior to the installation of a modern cold chain, kinnow was exposed to temperatures as high as 30-degree C in unrefrigerated trucks and losses could reach 32 percent. Ten pre-cooling units have been installed and there are now 400 refrigerated truck trips during harvest season. Post-harvest losses have been reduced by 76 percent. Previously, kinnow was only available for 2-3 months a year. The improved cold chain has extended the period of availability to 4-5 months a year, allowing for export to ten countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The grower’s profits increased by 15 percent, and profits of the refrigerated transporter increased by 23 percent.

Food cold chain and climate change
Although CO2 emissions during harvest and transport of kinnow have been reduced by 16 percent, the introduction of cold chain transport and refrigeration has inevitably created new carbon emissions. To measure the benefit of introducing effective cold chain despite carbon emissions, several scenarios were simulated in a previous study commissioned by Carrier. It concluded that “in all prospective scenarios, the decrease of FLW (food loss and waste) carbon footprint from cold chain expansion clearly outbalances the newly created emissions, by a factor of 10 approximately.”

Furthermore, new cold chain emissions will be further reduced through innovations such as low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants, or all-electric transport refrigeration equipment.

Source: International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR)

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