Mar 19, 2012
Technology helps maintain produce cold chain

Transportation is one of the fastest-growing segments of the produce industry, fueled by a growing world population and scientific research that has seen an unprecedented increase in food production. Food safety and transparency have been key in the transformation of the cold chain, as new technologies enhance both.

Satellite and wireless are two of the technologies pushing the industry forward. Purfresh is one of the companies that have taken advantage of satellites to monitor marine container atmospheres on freight ships.

“Once (produce) is in transit, it's a lot of times the longest part of the chain with no visibility,” said David Bouchard, Purfresh general manager for post-harvest transport solutions. “When you receive your produce, it may look good today, but tomorrow it has ripened or experiences decay, so transparency is going to help deliver better produce and safer food, but also see what has occurred in transit.”

The Purfresh Transport technology features Intellipur load protection monitoring software that evaluates temperature, humidity, oxygen, carbon dioxide and ozone levels in a freight ship container throughout the voyage. It provides real-time readings of each parameter through satellites or GSM, which transmit the information to a database at the company's Fremont, Calif.-based operations center. The data can be accessed throughout the trip by any Internet browser, and changes in the container environmentals can be easily addressed to maintain constant control of the produce.

First developed in 2007, the technology was released commercially in 2009. It has been widely accepted by ocean freight companies around the world, including the top 23 ocean carriers, and can be seen in more than 60 ports internationally.

One of the reasons the technology has gained wide acceptance is because produce makes up a large percentage of freight shipped across oceans.

Bouchard said 1.2 million refrigerated containers average about four to five trips around the world per year, and approximately 40 percent are used to transport produce.
“What drives the business is longer transport times, better quality arrivals and less loss during transport,” he said.

Ozone monitoring is available for all produce items in transit, but the service is not provided for other perishable items like frozen foods or meat. However, Purfresh Transport still offers real-time temperature monitoring for these products.

“Ozone is not required for other perishables, and we don't have any science to address these ozone needs,” Bouchard said.

Temperature monitoring has also found its way onto land-based transportation systems like semi-trucks and rail cars, equaling full load monitoring throughout the cold chain. Thermo King has created temperature control based on the commodity being shipped, monitoring refrigerated systems on everything from small vans and semi trucks to refrigerated rail cars and marine containers.

“A lot of our focus is on efficiency and optimization, and customizing the trailer so we can adapt the temperature to meet the needs of the customer,” said Doug Lenz, Thermo King director of product management and marketing.

Thermo King monitors temperature through a wireless system on the refrigeration unit. Previous systems relied on satellites, but newer systems have a greater focus on cellular technology. The system features a microprocessor and antennae, along with a backup battery for continued operation throughout the chain. The device monitors temperature in each unit and sends the data to a remote, secure server operated by Thermo King that can be accessed with a smart phone, laptop computer or tablet. The temperature can be viewed real-time, including in transit, with new readings available every five minutes, and can advise operators when problems arise, such as temperature changes within each unit or system malfunctions.

The system allows remote temperature settings optimized for specific products and can track produce in-transit and provide warnings when alarms have been set off when product or trailer doors have been tampered with.

“You can monitor and change temperature settings to meet the temperature needs (per commodity) and maximize efficiency, which means less food waste and spoilage,” Lenz said. “It provides real-time monitoring and food safety.”

Although Thermo King has been one of the pioneers behind satellite and cellular temperature monitoring systems, it is not the only designer or manufacturer, and systems are offered by many companies and are available industry-wide. The company offers systems for its own refrigeration units, but they can also be adapted to older units, as well as units manufactured by third parties. But even with increased food safety offered through temperature monitoring systems, the technology hasn't gained full acceptance throughout the transportation industry.

“The adoption rate is different per customer segment,” Lenz said. “In over-the-road trucking, the adoption rate is moving up, but is still estimated at 10 to 15 percent, while rail is estimated at near 100 percent.”

But even with slow acceptance in truck transportation, the technology is gradually being adopted, which ultimately increases food safety and traceability throughout the transportation chain.

“We can control temperature much more closely, and for the customer that means a longer shelf life,” Lenz said. “And they can make more informed decisions on how units operate.”

By Everett Brazil III, VGN Correspondent

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