Freshness Wars—Part Two: Challenges and Solutions for Improving Freshness
on Oct 13, 2022
Maintaining freshness of produce and other fresh products is challenging for grocers and their suppliers. Here we discuss why, and how some of these challenges can be solved.
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In Part One of this series, we discussed the foundational role of freshness in competition for grocery market share. Here in part two, we look at why maintaining freshness throughout the supply chain is so challenging and how some of these challenges can be solved.
Global Supply Chain – Long, Complex, Vulnerable
Consumers have come to expect high quality, fresh produce and other perishables (e.g. seafood) twelve months a year, regardless of the season. Fulfilling this expectation requires a very long and complicated supply chain that spans the globe. This creates longer transit times, and many more points of vulnerability for contamination, temperature diversions, and other potential compromises in quality. Using produce as a prime example, the vulnerability points for quality and freshness start with the trip from field to pack house, and can include the inland transportation, loading/unloading, and potentially sorting at the origin and destination ports, the overland travel, repacking at a distribution center, the ‘last mile’ to the retail outlet, and handling at the retailer. Speed, precision, and good monitoring are required for every leg throughout the entire chain to reduce losses and maximize delivered freshness and quality.
The Cost to the Grocer
Spoilage is a huge problem in the grocery supply chain. 16% of produce is lost in the North American supply chain from post harvest, to processing, distribution, and retail.1 Most grocers simply accept this as a cost of doing business, due to the nature of the product. They assume that their existing visual and trailer-level QA processes will reject most of the unacceptable produce and assess a chargeback to the supplier. But the belief that those losses are not being borne by the retailer is misguided. Costs in the supply chain ultimately flow back to the retailer. Conversely, decreases in supply chain losses result in savings that, over the long run, benefit the retailer. Reductions in spoilage result in reductions in costs to the grocer and therefore increased profits and more competitive pricing.
Furthermore, since QA processes currently rely on visual inspection and trailer-level monitoring, they often miss issues caused by improper temperature control. Once the retailer has accepted the produce and put it on display, they have little choice but to continue to sort and throw out anything that goes bad, which costs both in terms of waste and increased labor. In fact, grocer retail executives get concerned if perishable waste numbers for a particular store are too low, worrying that it is an indicator that the displays are not fully stocked or not being adequately culled, negatively impacting the customer’s experience and willingness to buy. Fortunately, there are practices that can reduce both pre- and post-QA produce losses, maintaining higher quality and resulting in net benefits for the retailer.
Who Owns Responsibility for Freshness?
The responsibility for freshness is divided across many entities in the supply chain—growers, packers, shippers, transportation carriers, 3PLs and warehouse operators, marketers, distributors, and finally the grocery retailer (see Figure 1 - Supply Chain / Temperature Challenges, next page). The freshness of produce is a product of its end-to-end handling, all the way from the farm to the checkout counter. Shrink and reduction in freshness begins at harvest and is magnified throughout the cold chain journey. It doesn’t begin at the store, even if a shipment looked good when it was accepted. All it takes is one weak link in the chain to destroy the fruits of all the other supply chain players’ discipline. The most effective solutions, therefore, will be end-to-end, spanning across all the entities handling the product.
1 - Supply Chain / Temperature Challenges and Vulnerabilities
Quality inspection is by nature a sampling process, not complete inspection of every item. But the history and handling of produce is usually not uniform, even across a single delivery. There will always be portions of the load that were treated worse or better. Also, visual inspections miss a significant percentage of issues that are not apparent to the naked eye. Fruits or vegetables may look perfectly fine, but still have a significantly compromised shelf life due to temperature excursions.
When retailers believe that what happens in their supply chain is not their responsibility, or beyond their control, they miss a critical opportunity to improve the performance of their supply chain, and increase freshness and ultimately profitability.
Some important parts of the freshness equation are within the retailer’s own operations and control—quality inspection and receiving acceptance procedures, as well as inventory management and proper rotation, washing, trimming, temperature control, and general management of the produce displays. More challenging for retailers is how to monitor and influence the proper handling of produce throughout the supply chain, from the field all the way to the retailer’s receiving dock. When retailers believe that what happens in their supply chain is not their responsibility, or beyond their control, they miss a critical opportunity to improve the performance of their supply chain, and increase freshness and ultimately profitability.
End-to-End Temperature Control: The Key to Freshness
Example of Class 3 BAP Temperature-sensing Tag
(from Intelleflex) packed in the case with produce.
Having the right protective packaging is certainly part of the answer and is a key part of maintaining produce quality, especially for delicate fruits. But perhaps even more important, and the toughest nut to crack, tends to be temperature control. It’s not enough to monitor and control temperature in just one leg of the journey, even if it is the longest leg. Problems can occur at every step—starting from produce kept too long in the hot sun in the field before it goes to the cooler, to each loading and unloading point. In fact, the handoffs can be the weak links, where the produce may sit for hours before being loaded onto a truck or put away into cold storage. For that reason, a solution can only be effective if it measures and monitors the entire temperature exposure history of each pallet or case of the produce throughout its whole lifecycle, from the field to the retailer’s door. Monitoring each pallet or case is important, as each is unique due to its individual processing and handling conditions and history.
RFID-enabled Temperature Monitoring and Traceability
Barcodes are useful in telling where the product is or has been, but they don’t tell anything about the duration or severity of temperature excursions. RFID-enabled temperature sensors on each pallet or in each case enable temperature monitoring at every step of the way throughout the end-to-end journey of the produce. RFID-based temperature tags today (such as ISO Class 3 battery assisted passive tags) are small and can be easily placed directly in the case with the produce right at the field or packhouse to start measurement right at the beginning of the journey. With RFID, the data can be automatically captured without modifying workflows or existing processes.
Placing the temperature measurement device within each case, right with the fruits or vegetables, provides the truest and most accurate picture of what the produce has been exposed to. Within a refrigerated truck, the temperature can vary by as much as 30% between different locations within the truck. Those temperature variations are captured by the case-level device, but are missed by the use of a vehicle-level device, even if there are several devices measuring temperature at a few different points within the refrigerated truck or 40’ container. More importantly, simply measuring within the truck misses all of the potential temperature excursions that happen before and after that particular leg of the journey.
Comparison of RFID vs. Traditional USB-based Data Loggers
Battery-Assisted Passive Tags
There is a big difference in performance between traditional passive UHF RFID tags and battery-assisted passive (BAP) tags, especially the newer ISO 18000-6C Class 3 tags. BAP tags can be read at 10X-30X the distance of a passive tag and are read more reliably in the presence of the high water-content inherent in fresh products (produce, meat, fish packed in ice, dairy products). They also can be read more reliably on fast- moving conveyor belts, within pallets stacked high with product, and in challenging environments such as a fast-moving forklift or a warehouse with lots of metal shelving. These can make the critical difference in real-world settings and use, where near-100% reliability is a must. It is a good idea to use tags conforming to the ISO 18000-6C Class 3 standard which improves significantly on the performance of previous generations of BAP tags, providing longer ranges, longer battery life, and better control over interference.
RFID temperature sensors not only provide continual monitoring, but are very quickly and easily read using a handheld or forklift-mounted reader, or automatically read as part of the unloading process via dock door readers that the forklift drives through, or using a tunnel reader that a conveyor belt passes through. In fact, with most of these methods, the reading of data happens automatically as workers do their job (unloading the truck, putting cases on a conveyer, etc.) without any manual step required by the worker. This type of automated, in-the-chain reading is not practical with USB-based data loggers.
This is an important distinction: RFID can provide continuous data collection and near-real-time monitoring at each key point in the chain, whereas the USB-based logger only provides “after-the-fact” data at the end of the journey. There are a couple of reasons why this is important. First, RFID can provide alerts and notifications in near real-time,2 allowing corrective action to be taken. For example, the system could generate an alert when items have been sitting too long on a hot loading dock.3 Or if the compressor on a refrigerated container or truck failed or was not turned on, then an alarm could be generated. And RFID enables a First Expired First Out (FEFO) regimen at DCs in the cold chain, making more intelligent real-time decisions on where to send produce, based on its temperature history.4 These types of corrective actions can dramatically reduce spoilage and waste and they are not practically achieved using a USB-based approach.
Secondly, by installing readers at critical points in the supply chain, waypoint data5 can be written to the RFID device. This provides a traceability record—a record of each handoff in the chain-of-custody, as well as an unambiguous assigning of responsibility for any temperature excursions. USB-based loggers do not provide this traceability or recording of handoffs.
Finally, beyond real-time alerts, having an RFID device that is continuously collecting temperature data all the way from the field to the grocery store provides the retailer with an unambiguous and precise measurement of the produce’s temperature history, throughout its entire journey. This history can be very quickly and easily read, or automatically read, at the time the product is received by the retailer.
The product can be received with confidence, or rejected, knowing exactly when, where, and for how long it was kept at the wrong temperatures.