5 roles of cold chain in ensuring food safety
In today’s globalised food industry, ensuring the safety and quality of fresh, perishable food products is of utmost importance. Along the supply chain, maintaining the integrity of food throughout is a complex process that requires efficient, consistent and reliable systems. One crucial aspect of this process is the implementation of effective cooling solutions.
The cold chain encompasses the entire journey from the source of the raw materials (such as cooling milk on the farm) to the refrigerators or freezers owned by consumers, including all the intermediate stages along the way. For this, the goal is to maintain a specific temperature range from the point of origin to the end consumer, ensuring that the products retain their quality, nutritional value, and safety.
This article explores the vital role that a consistent cold chain plays in safeguarding the safety of perishable food for export, drawing light to the solutions designed and deployed by InspiraFarms Cooling.
Cold chain management to ensure compliance with regulations.
Many food safety regulations and standards require the maintenance of specific temperature conditions throughout the food supply chain. These regulations and standards, such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system, ensure that agribusinesses, exporters, 3PL, and food distributors are following best practices to ensure consumer safety, based on its 7 principles.
HACCP auditing can be extended to cover cooling and cold storage. This audit is designed to be used for facilities that are receiving goods directly from the fields, orchards, etc. after harvest, carrying out pre-cooling and/or cooling activities (ice injectors, top icing, hydrovac pressure cooling, etc) and storing at controlled temperatures. If there is any repacking, grading, packing, etc. occurring on site, then a pack house audit should be used. Finally, this process also includes pinpointing critical control points (CCPs) for identified hazards, monitoring systems, documentation systems, among others.
Other compliances and regulations relevant to exporters include Good Distribution Practices (GDPs), FDA regulations, and GLOBALG.A.P. Produce Handling Assurance (PHA) among others. Further into animal proteins, Regulation (EC) No 853/2004 specifically addresses hygiene requirements for food of animal origin. This includes temperature controls for slaughter, processing, and storage of meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and seafood. Altogether, this plays a crucial role in maintaining the required temperatures throughout the entire supply chain, ensuring the safety and quality of these products.
Overall, proper cold chain management and cold room usage demonstrate compliance with these regulations, and due diligence and facilitate food safety audits.
2. Cold chain as a pre-requisite for export
For many fresh crops imports into the EU cold, cold chain is mandatory. During the last few years, the European Union has been adopting stricter import regulations to limit the entry of crop pests. For instance, recent regulations state that all imports departing from countries affected by False Codling Moth must have a new phytosanitary certificate indicating that their oranges have been grown in an authorised place. As well the regulations require precooling, for instance oranges coming from risky countries such as South Africa, must certify the application of pre-cooling to +5°C at origin and cold treatment in transit at -1°C to +2°C degrees for 25 days. From 2023 onwards, exporters will have two options: either cold treatment between -1°C and 0°C for 16 days or between -1°C and +2 °C for 20 days. In both cases, the operators will be required to pre-cool at 0°C and 2°C, respectively.
The EU has made the cold chain mandatory for importing fresh crops. In recent years, the EU has been implementing stricter import regulations to control the spread of crop pests. As an example, the new regulations stipulate that imports from countries affected by False Codling Moth must possess a new phytosanitary certificate confirming that their oranges were cultivated in an authorized location. Additionally, the regulations demand precooling measures. Oranges originating from high-risk countries like South Africa must provide certification of pre-cooling to +5°C at the source and cold treatment during transportation at temperatures ranging from -1°C to +2°C for a period of 25 days. Starting from 2023, exporters will have two choices: either cold treatment between -1°C and 0°C for 16 days or between -1°C and +2°C for 20 days. In both scenarios, the operators will be required to pre-cool the oranges at 0°C and 2°C, respectively.
3. The role of cold chain in preventing microbial growth and ensuring freshness
An efficient and consistent cold chain ensures that perishable fresh food products are stored and transported at the appropriate temperatures to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and maintain their freshness. Cold temperatures, especially in chilling or freezing conditions, significantly slow down the metabolic activities of microorganisms, including their ability to reproduce, produce enzymes, and break down food components. As a result, the spoilage process is delayed, and the risk of contamination is cut down.
However, maintaining a suitable cold chain, especially in regions with limited infrastructure, frequent power outages, and complex logistics, poses significant challenges to food safety. Infrastructure limitations, such as a lack of adequate power storage facilities and backup power can hinder the effective preservation and continuity of the cold chain. To address these challenges, where possible, it is essential to invest in cold storage infrastructure, with a thermal storage tank, or adopt a three-phase powered solution for energy backup. Alternatively, across the cold chain, companies can utilise temperature data loggers in their operations, to help them monitor the temperature of their products along their entire facility. These devices can send alerts or notifications when temperature thresholds are breached or when there are significant fluctuations, ensuring consistent temperatures, a critical factor for safe food.
4. Cold rooms traceability of foodborne illnesses
Cold rooms provide controlled environments where temperature, humidity, and airflow can be regulated and monitored to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, pathogens, and spoilage organisms that thrive in warmer conditions. In turn, this helps to minimise the risk of foodborne illnesses caused by pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. Additionally, in the case of a foodborne illness outbreak or contamination event, efficient product tracing helps government agencies and food distributors find the source of the product and where contamination may have occurred. This enables faster removal of the affected product from the marketplace, reducing incidences of foodborne illnesses.
The cold chain requires detailed documentation and record-keeping at various stages of the supply chain. This includes information about product origin, production dates, batch numbers, storage conditions, transportation routes, and delivery details. Such documentation creates a comprehensive trail that enables traceability. In case of any quality or safety issues, these records help identify the exact point of failure or potential sources of contamination and help with recall and claims management.
5. Preventing cross-contamination through the cold chain
Proper cold chain systems help prevent cross-contamination between different food products by separating them and maintaining individual temperature zones. Cold rooms with proper organisation and storage practices ensure that raw foods, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat items are stored separately. Additionally, food products within the cold chain are packaged and labelled appropriately to prevent cross-contamination. This includes using leak-proof and tamper-evident packaging that prevents contact between different food items during storage and transportation. Further, clear labelling ensures that products are easily identifiable, and proper handling instructions are followed to maintain their safety.
In cold chain operations, temperature is the most important hurdle, therefore, control is essential. A critical factor to consider is TTT (time-temperature tolerance) factors, which refers to the relationship between storage temperature and storage life. The TTT concept is one of the two principles that dominate control of quality and safety in chilled foods and can also predict the effects of changing or fluctuating temperatures on quality shelf life. This way, food distributors have awareness of the potential growth of microorganisms such as Listeria, Yersenia and Aeromonas at chill temperatures.
In conclusion, the role of the cold chain in ensuring the safety of perishable food cannot be overstated. By maintaining specific temperature conditions throughout the entire supply chain, the cold chain plays a vital role in preserving the quality, nutritional value, and safety of perishable food products. By adhering to best practices and utilising temperature monitoring systems, the cold chain ultimately maintains the integrity of fresh perishable food and ensuring consumer safety.