4 tips for overcoming cold chain challenges in meat and fish.

Meat is a perishable product with a short shelf life and therefore short selling times. The preservation of meat, both red and poultry, at sufficiently cold temperatures holds utmost importance for both local trade and export purposes, be it in chilled or frozen form. Raw materials, ingredients, intermediate products and finished products that are likely to support the growth of pathogenic microorganisms and spoilage bacteria, are to be kept at temperatures that do not result in health risks. For this reason, the cold chain should not be interrupted throughout the entire meat distribution process, spanning from the slaughterhouse to wholesale, and from retail display to the end consumer.

The growth of urbanisation and the middle class has brought along new consumer habits and increasing demand for chilled and frozen foods. The convenience of pre-slaughtered and frozen meats is becoming the preferred way of purchasing meats by many African consumers, as to ensure the quality and good health conditions and treatment of meats. This consumer trend underscores the significance of investing in the cold chain at every step of the journey.  

In this article, we explore four indispensable tips to overcome the cold chain challenges in trading meat, to ensure it remains pristine throughout its journey. 

1. Proper packaging  

Efficient packaging plays a crucial role in overcoming cold chain challenges when trading meat. Various factors, including economic, technical, and legal considerations, influence the selection of packaging, with its main purpose being to safeguard the product from external contaminants and ensure it remains undamaged during transportation from the producer to the consumer. Meat and poultry are packaged chilled or frozen and often in humid environments, so packaging needs to act as a protective barrier, shielding the food from gases, light, and water vapour. These elements can lead to colour deterioration, lipid and unsaturated fat oxidation, protein denaturation, and a loss of sensory qualities. Additionally, an effective barrier prevents the loss of moisture from the food to the surrounding environment, thereby averting dehydration and weight reduction.

In addition to these protective functions, packaging should also exhibit physical and chemical stability across a range of temperatures, such as freezer conditions. By ensuring that the animal protein products are packaged in appropriate materials, you provide insulation and protect against potential temperature fluctuations. Vacuum-sealed or specialised temperature-controlled packaging is ideal for preserving the meat quality and shelf life by restricting the amount of bacteria growth, especially convenient for local retail distribution. For export, meat is treated under deep frozen and packaged with solid paper-based board boxes, which freezes much faster than other packaging.

2.  Cold rooms, slaughterhouses and freezers

Preservation of red and poultry meat for trade and export purposes, in either chilled or frozen form at sufficiently cold temperatures is essential for successful national and international trade. A fresh piece of meat can only be kept fresh for a few days, while frozen can be kept for several months.

Usually, pork, beef, lamb and poultry carcasses are chilled immediately after post-mortem inspection at the slaughter line or chilling rooms. Most often, after 24 to 96 hours of chilling, the carcasses are usually moved to a processing room where they are further cut into primary cuts. These cuts can be typically stored for up to 6 weeks in vacuum packs under anaerobic conditions.  

In slaughterhouses, the meat cold chain starts with two main steps.

(a) Primary chilling

Where the meat carcasses are rapidly cooled after slaughter, so that the warmest point of the carcass is at a temperature of between +3°C to +7°C, depending on the cut and type of meat.

(b) Secondary chilling

Where the meat temperature is maintained below +7°C for red meat and below +4°C for poultry meat at all times, during chill storage, cutting, deboning, mincing, and before transportation. For frozen products, the shorter the freezing time is, the lesser the damage to the cellular structure of the protein, which will result in a better quality after defrosting, with a longer shelf life. Considering the shorter time required for freezing, many are opting for “blast freezing”, also called “shock freezing”. which means, freezing the product into the core in a short time. The faster you freeze an animal protein into the core, the less you will dehydrate it. Considering that meat is sold by weight, progressive dehydration means losing money. Therefore, faster freezing time will result in more output and more kilogrammes to sell.

modular slaughterhouses for meat with cold rooms and freezers

Considering the processing of meats, and animal proteins in general, requires very strict and precise cooling protocols, it is important to invest in high-quality cooling technology and cold storage facilities at production sites, ports, and distribution centres, with reliable refrigeration systems capable of maintaining the required temperature for the specific animal protein products. InspiraFarms Cooling provides modular and prefabricated slaughterhouses for the meat and poultry industries, offering the necessary temperature ranges and cooling features to efficiently cool and store meats. Our modular slaughterhouses offer a comprehensive solution for an animal protein treatment, encompassing various components such as slaughtering spaces, air-conditioned production areas, cold rooms for deboning, cutting-packing, and dispatching halls, chilling and holding rooms for smaller meat cuts, blast freezing tunnels, freezers for further processing, and freezing rooms for carcasses Do you have questions or interested in starting a project? Get a quote today. 

3. Temperature Monitoring  

Temperature is the main post-processing parameter in the determination of shelf-life in a cold chain of chilled and frozen food products. Therefore, it is critical to have a set of sensors to collect temperature data. At slaughterhouses, traders can adopt the InspiraFarms remote monitoring system which is integrated with our data cloud system. The system comes with a user-friendly online platform that works on any mobile or desktop device, allowing the instant sharing of detailed data and reports on temperature, humidity, door openings, and energy consumption, among others. 

The system consists of IoT-enabled sensors, including intelligent sensors, loggers, and electronics that work together to generate the key data needed to optimise cooling performance and track your energy consumption. This set of data solutions is available for both InspiraFarms cold rooms and as retrofitting for cold rooms delivered by others.

By employing such efficient temperature sensors or data loggers throughout various stages of transportation—loading, unloading, and storage—meat traders can promptly detect any deviations from the necessary temperature range. This enables them to take immediate corrective measures, ensuring timely intervention. 

4. Cold chain in meat transport and distribution   

Refrigerated trucks have different characteristics and performances. In brief, its size, initial temperature of incoming meat, the targeted temperature during transportation, mechanical characteristics (e.g., power of compressors, ventilation and insulation), as well as cost matters are issues of priority when considering the reefer. In general, the vehicle must be provided with a good refrigeration system capable of maintaining the required temperature of the meat at all times during distribution. It is therefore critical to collaborate with reliable transportation providers experienced in handling animal proteins, to ensure that the vehicles used for transportation are equipped with proper refrigeration units and can maintain the desired temperature throughout the journey.

5.  Documentation and traceability for meat trading

Maintaining meticulous and comprehensive records of temperature monitoring, handling procedures, and transportation conditions is of utmost importance. These records serve as crucial evidence of adherence to quality and safety standards, offering reassurance to all stakeholders involved in the trade.

Further, in the unfortunate event of a product recall due to quality or safety concerns linked to the cold chain, proper documentation and a well-established traceability system becomes indispensable. Traders can quickly determine which products are affected, trace their distribution routes, and retrieve them from the market. In turn, this helps in risk management, regarding cold chain challenges, such as temperature fluctuations or improper handling, which can lead to spoilage, contamination, and increased health risks.

Moreover, traceability proves instrumental in managing risks associated with cold chain challenges. With issues like temperature fluctuations or improper handling leading to spoilage, contamination, and heightened health hazards, a reliable traceability system allows traders to pinpoint the source of these challenges and take immediate corrective measures. For instance, if a problem arises in a specific batch of meat, the documentation allows traders to identify precisely where the issue occurred, preventing its spread to other batches. 

In conclusion 

The preservation of the cold chain is crucial for red meat and poultry trade, ensuring product quality and safety during local and export processes. Proper packaging, high-quality cold chain, and temperature monitoring with sensors are essential drivers to assure the quality, health safety and shelf-life of animal protein products. Additionally, meticulous documentation and a reliable traceability system play a vital role in managing risks and ensuring quick corrective measures. By adhering to these indispensable tips, meat traders can safeguard the integrity of their products, maintaining their market value and meeting consumer demands. 

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