New Smart Labels For The Cold Chain

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

New cheap and innovative smart labels offer improved means to secure the cold chain, ensuring food stays fresh while helping to reduce wastage. By David Toh, director, Voyager Venture

The cold chain, defined as the uninterrupted transport and storage of perishable goods under temperature controlled conditions from the producer to consumers, is everyone’s problem but nobody’s responsibility.

Rapid growth for cold chain logistics services has led to stakeholder fragmentation, reduced accountability, and bolt on practices which mask problems rather than address underlying fundamental causes. As a result, perishable inventory losses sustained from breaches in the cold chain are accepted as part and parcel of doing business.

No one has ownership for fixing problems in the cold chain because there are too many stakeholders involved and no verifiable means to pinpoint the source of the problems.

According to a study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), more than 50 percent of global food losses and wastage was attributed to poor or non-existent cold chain operations. Separate reports from the FAO also estimate that almost 1.3 billion tonnes, or one third by weight of all food produced globally a year, is lost at some point of the food chain before it is even consumed by human beings. That is enough food thrown away to feed three billion more people on this planet.

Stakeholders in the cold chain also neglect that the cumulative impact of temperature breaches impacts the overall quality and freshness of perishable food sold to consumers. With no system in place to track end-to-end temperature fluctuations in the cold chain from producers to consumers, stakeholders assume that small breaches of the control temperature are acceptable, not realising that the cumulative effects of tiny breaches in each part of the cold chain are inadvertently accelerating food spoilage by the time food hits the supermarket shelves.

As a result, food retailers do not completely trust the cold chain, and are forced to provision for earlier sell-by-dates or accelerated price markdowns to clear perishables that could have been kept longer had the cold chain been more secure.

A study conducted by R.D. Heap revealed that even with cold chain practices in place, temperatures still fluctuate widely during transport. The figure below shows the temperature range of meat being flown from Europe to the US.

While instructions were given to maintain the temperature range between 2-8 deg C during transport, the actual temperature varied from -1 deg C to 26 deg C. Such wide variations in temperature range will lead to sustained and cumulative damage to perishable food, resulting in wastage of 25-30 percent of shipments, even with cold chain practices in place.

Best practices for monitoring the food chain involve the use of temperature data loggers, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, and wireless temperature monitors, but these fall short in several respects.

First, there is no low cost method of tracking perishables from producer to consumer. Hot spots along each part of the cold chain cannot be accurately monitored. Such hot spots may arise from loading chilled food into trucks which have not been properly pre-cooled, poor air flow in trucks and storage facilities, less-than-full load shipments, or multiple drop-off points. Worst, intermittent exposure to lapses in the cold chain leads to cumulative damage of perishable items which reduces food freshness, and worse still, this cannot even be detected.

The lack of suitable monitoring mechanisms for individual food packs also means that there is no way to distinguish between salvageable and non-salvageable inventory in the event of a temperature breach. This often leads to entire pallets of food shipments being discarded for safety reasons.

Enter The Smart Label

The situation is not entirely hopeless for cold chain stakeholders. Tremendous advances have been made in the last few years in the area of smart labels for time temperature indicators (TTI). Launched a few years ago, the first generation of these TTI indicators employed RFID technology, but it was deemed to be impractical for mass adoption on individual food packs because of high costs.

In the past 12 months, new innovations in smart label technology have started to make their way into markets, starting in Europe. These second generation smart labels make use of tiny amounts of inks which are activated by changes in the temperature environment.

These food-safe temperature-activated inks are encapsulated within the smart labels and never come into contact with the underlying food, even though they are also certified bio-compatible with the food industry by regulators. The activator inks are designed to change colour, or erase certain markers on the labels when cumulative temperature breach has occurred.

The advantage of deploying smart labels is that every pack of raw meat, fish, or poultry can now be individually tracked for cold chain compliance. Additional labels can also be affixed to food pallets, cartons, or boxes for high level visual inspection. These smart labels are attached at the source of the raw meat or fish production before they are transported through the cold chain.

Generally, the reaction of the smart label to cold chain breaches is dependent on the temperature differential between the control temperature and the ambient temperature, as well as duration of temperature abuse. The higher the temperature differential, the faster the changes on the smart label. Similarly, the longer the period of temperature abuse, the more significant are the changes on the label.

The beauty about these newer smart labels is that they measure what is most critical in securing the cold chain: cumulative temperature abuse. As aforementioned, the cumulative temperature abuse in the cold chain impacts the overall quality and shelf-life of fresh meat, poultry and fish.

To assess if any cold chain breaches have taken place during any phase of transport, stakeholders just need to visually check if the smart labels are intact at point of receipt and handover of goods. If temperature abuse has taken place, a simple visual inspection will be able to help identify hot spot problem areas in the cold chain.

The presence of smart labels on all temperature-sensitive food packs will also alert cold chain stakeholders to exercise more care when handling these products. This is no different from the care and priority handling accorded to the checkedin luggage of premium frequent flyers of airlines.

Currently cold chain logistics providers do not pay enough attention to the wide temperature variations that occur during transport, and assume that as long as the temperature is within the control range during the handover process, they are deemed to have fulfilled their part of the contract.

The new generation of smart labels also provides producers and retailers of fresh food products tremendous flexibility in how they want to exercise control over their cold chain. As the warning markers on the label are thermal printed, users have the flexibility to set when the markers go off in order to give themselves some flexibility. These adjustments can be made with existing software for printer labels.

For example, different types of food products require different cold chain temperatures. The cold chain temperature requirements for fresh meat and fish are different from that required for ice cream, tofu, or dairy products. To this end, new smart labels can be customised for each type of food product with different control temperatures.

Low Costs Will Spur Adoption

In order for new technologies and solutions to be adopted by the industry, costs must be reasonable such that investments can be justified by attractive returns over the long term.

The key advantage of these new generation smart labels is that they cost as little as US$0.01 when applied onto each meat pack, and in the long run will probably cost half as much. They are significantly cheaper than RFID smart tags because there are no printed electronics involved.

These systems rely on visual markers or colour changes to alert stakeholders of temperature abuse. No special equipment is needed to read the smart labels, and in some cases, existing barcode scanners are sufficient for ascertaining if temperature in the cold chain has been maintained.

With adoption of these new smart labels, fresh food retailers can extend the shelf-life of their temperature sensitive products, enhance brand loyalty by emphasising food safety, and generate higher revenues by selling more products. Margins also get a boost because of reduced inventory losses and less discounting from accelerated sell-by-dates. A secure cold chain also means fresh food retailers can confidently source for new food products from further afield, providing differentiated products from the competition.

Drivers Of Adoption

Asia is home to almost half of the world’s population. Increasing urbanisation and female participation in the labour force have led to a shift away from wet markets to the convenience of all day supermarket shopping. As consumer incomes rise, demand for healthy fresh foods will grow. Evidence of these trends is already present in the fast growing sections of supermarkets for premium priced organic meat and vegetables, and superfoods with higher nutritional value.

Climate change and global warming are also having a cause and effect on our global food system. To feed our global population which is expected to increase from seven billion people to 10 billion by 2050, we will need to increase our food production by as much as 70 percent if current levels of food waste are sustained.

And yet, the solution to our problems in the future already exists today—if cold chains are properly secured, we have more than enough food that is being farmed today to feed tomorrow’s population.

Global warming is also leading to an increase in the number of hot spots in cold chains. More breaches will occur as the temperature differential between the external and cold chain environment widens.

With no ability to closely monitor food shipments in the cold chain, it is logical to assume that spoilage rates will only increase with time. These come at a time when the growing urban middle class in Asia are consuming more fresh food sold in supermarkets and pressing for better food safety. Now is the time to act to secure ourselves for a better future.