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Say goodbye to the weakest link

It's time for manufacturers to invest in better transport systems.

What drives the push for food safety? Cost efficiency. Food safety equipment and programs cost money, yet the investment made in these products and services often saves manufacturers from the high cost of rejected and recalled products. And that's precisely what will drive the push for improved transportation.

As far as the supply chain goes, transportation is often the most overlooked element. Boats, trucks, trains, tankers, airplanes and containers are used to move both food products and ingredients from suppliers and manufacturers to consumers. The primary concerns for shipping include tampering and sabotage, temperature abuse, and cross-contamination. Any one of which could become a health concern and public relations nightmare for a food manufacturer.

Consumers in the United States generally know not to buy products in which the tamper-evident seal has been compromised or a vacuum button has popped. This is not the case worldwide. While working in Egypt, I routinely observed shoppers open jars to taste products and then return the container to the shelf. To protect loads in containers, rail cars or tankers, seals provide the end user with evidence that the load has not been opened. Many operations have established strict policies that state, "no load with a compromised seal shall be accepted," but rejection of a load at one location does not necessarily mean that the products in question will not come back into the food chain at another location.

That is precisely the concern with temperature abuse as well. Products incorrectly kept cool or warm can unknowingly (or knowingly) enter the food chain and become threats to your business. Temperature abuse of refrigerated or frozen products during distribution is all too common. Unscrupulous drivers will pick up loads, leave the dock, and then pull over and turn off the refrigeration units. They will turn the units back on shortly before arrival at the destination. In addition, refrigerated containers can be improperly set or fail during trans-oceanic shipments. If a refrigeration unit fails during distribution, you should determine if quality or safety has been compromised. Yet, getting enough data about the shipment is not always easy.

Monitoring temperatures and minimizing potential temperature abuse can be implemented, but admittedly at a cost. Global Positional Systems (GPS) linked to sensors allow shippers to monitor both the location and temperature of containers during distribution, but use of this technology is the exception rather than the rule. Fitting all refrigerated shippers with functioning temperature monitors would be a giant step forward and worth the initial investment.

In some cases, it's not equipment that is needed as much as a commitment to the time it takes to adequately monitor shipments. A major outbreak of salmonella in 1994 was traced to tankers used to ship ice cream mix that had previously held liquid eggs. While many operations require that all shipping containers be inspected and cleaned (if necessary) prior to loading, there are too few that require a history check on the trailer or container.

There are, of course, shipping situations that are intrinsically difficult. Perhaps the weakest link in the system is the less-than-load (LTL) shipment. LTL carriers make numerous stops, deliver to small and/or out-of-the-way businesses and often include shipments that contain food and non-food components. The time it takes to make these stops and travel to companies off the beaten path can sometimes compromise product. We must invest in good transportation systems and strategies while keeping in mind the differences in our delivery needs.

The food and transportation industries need to work closely to develop programs to protect carriers and products. Regulators must protect the consumer and food supply, but must also address the realities of the industries they are regulating. Quality and safety cost money, but more often than not, the dollars spent provide cost-savings in the long run.

Richard Stier is a consulting food scientist who has helped food processors develop safety, quality and sanitation programs. He can be reached at rickstier4@aol.com

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