Effective Frozen Food Logistics Management: Understanding the Cold Chain

From production until the moment it’s purchased by a consumer, strong frozen food logistics management is absolutely vital. The protection offered by freezing food is only useful as long as those products remain frozen. 

Frozen foods offer a unique contrast in terms of their durability and how easily they can spoil. 

When properly stored in an industrial or deep freezer, frozen foods technically remain safe to eat indefinitely, the FDA points out. It’s not a best practice to eat these foods because of quality and perception issues. However, that longevity is impressive. There are few other methods that can keep food safe to eat (if not appealing) without an end date.

At the same time, even a relatively short excursion outside the safe frozen food temperature range can lead to serious problems. Products can spoil or become unsafe for consumption very quickly. Once a shipment of frozen food crosses that safety threshold, there’s no coming back from it. 

Effective logistics for frozen food depend on a consistent and controlled approach throughout the supply chain. It’s not enough to have a basic strategy or an outline of a safe cold storage plan. A safe and reliable temperature control strategy accounts for every second of the journey.

Frozen food logistics management is a complex topic. It can help to look at different aspects of it to understand key principles, processes, needs, and goals.

Frozen Food Logistics Management: What are the Principles of Refrigeration and Freezing of Food Products?

A container ship seen from an overhead view.

Understanding Refrigeration and Freezing for Foods

Refrigeration as a process to preserve food or delay spoilage dates back thousands of years. 

The concepts of modern medicine and science that inform our current approach to frozen food safety weren’t close to being understood in those times. Despite that lack of advanced knowledge, certain groups across the globe realized the value of keeping food cool.

While modern, mechanical systems for refrigeration obviously didn’t exist in antiquity, natural options were available. In the past, people took advantage of resources including the following to keep foods cold:

  • Cold outdoor temperatures
  • Consistently low temperatures found underground, in caves, and in certain other places 
  • Ice and snow harvested from natural sources

These sources of cooling can be reliable in some cases, but many are seasonal or otherwise fluctuate. In the 18th century, research into man-made tools for refrigeration began. Concepts that eventually became the foundation of modern refrigerators, freezers, ice-makers, and similar devices began to emerge and were then refined.

Individuals and families began to use the precursor to the refrigerator — the icebox — in the 1800s as well. These devices used large blocks of ice to cool their contents. They could keep their contents cold for relatively long periods of time, but were not consistently reliable in the same way as a refrigerator or freezer.

Refrigeration and freezing technology became available for industrial and commercial use by the late 1800s. Continued research into and improvement of these tools eventually led to smaller, more efficient refrigerators and freezers.

These more affordable and accessible fridges and freezers fit into the homes, budgets, and overall lifestyles of the general public. In more developed nations, refrigerators and freezers became increasingly common as the 20th century progressed. Refrigeration and freezing technology have continued to become more accessible as time goes on.

How Do Refrigeration and Freezing Work?

We don’t want to get too deep into thermodynamic equations and advanced scientific concepts. However, a basic understanding of refrigeration helps to build context around frozen food logistics management and the temperature-controlled supply chain.

A variety of different methods exist for refrigeration and freezing, but the most common is vapor-compression refrigeration. This process uses a refrigerant to absorb heat from an enclosed space, and then eventually expel that heat from the system. The cycle operates continuously, ensuring that the enclosed space stays at the desired temperature.

Understanding Frozen Food as a Critical Safety Concept

Containers being moved within a port by a specialized forklift.

Why do we refrigerate and freeze food (and sometimes other sensitive products, like film and pharmaceuticals)? To slow down or stop processes that negatively affect those items.

For foods specifically, low temperatures slow down biological processes and chemical reactions, as ScienceDirect reminds us. 

Why is that important? Because those biological processes and chemical reactions — the activities of microorganisms present in all foods — eventually lead to spoilage and impurities. When people eat foods that have a high content of bacteria or toxins they can emit, it can cause illnesses like food poisoning.

Limitations of Freezing and Refrigeration in Food Safety

Refrigerating products will slow, but not stop, these biological and chemical processes that lead to spoilage and illness. Moisture and nutrients are still available to the bacteria but are less prevalent.

Freezing products at or below 0°F can effectively stop bacterial growth and spoilage. However, that requires constantly maintaining that low temperature until the items are ready to be cooked or consumed. That’s why food properly stored at the correct temperature has an indefinite shelf life in terms of safety (although not quality).

It’s important to note that the benefit of cold temperatures is to delay or prevent the growth of microorganisms. Specifically, it can only affect the bacteria already present in and on foods when they’re frozen or chilled. 

The cold doesn’t kill or deconstruct bacteria or its byproducts. Nor does freezing and refrigeration protect against growth or contamination after thawing. This process only deters additional growth and activity.

In contrast, treatments such as pasteurization and irradiation eliminate and destroy pathogens like bacteria. These treatments aren’t suitable for all foods in all contexts. However multiple methods for preserving foods can lead to further reductions in health risks and longer useable life. Ice cream, for example, often contains pasteurized milk and is (of course) frozen.

Heat energy always wants to reach an equilibrium. Because of the way refrigeration protects foods, refrigerators and freezers have to keep operating to maintain food safety. That’s one of the bedrock principles of successful supply chain management when it comes to frozen foods.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the process. How do producers, transportation companies, and other stakeholders build and maintain successful cold chains? We’ll look at how they comply with food safety laws and industry standards when it comes to frozen foods. We’ll also review the steps needed to maintain a successful cold chain to deliver these foods.

What Does Reliable Frozen Food Logistics Management Look Like?

Consistent refrigeration or freezing is the single most important and non-negotiable element of a successful cold chain. From the time food is initially chilled or frozen until it’s finally purchased by an end consumer, the cold chain must be maintained. Only the briefest excursions outside of safe temperature ranges are acceptable.

There are some unavoidable logistical needs, of course. Consider supermarket stockers bringing frozen items from cold storage to customer-facing freezers and refrigerators. There’s no way around the short period of time when those items are exposed to room temperature. Outside of these minor exceptions, consistency is crucial.

That’s the foundational concept for the safe handling and transportation of refrigerated and frozen foods. How do companies maintain the proper temperature and avoid having products spend a significant amount of time at potentially dangerous temperatures?

Guiding Principles for the Cold Chain

Dependable frozen food logistics in the USA and other countries are based on established, widespread, and accepted industry concepts. Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles are two key considerations in that regard. 

These oversight processes aren’t specific to frozen and refrigerated foods. However, they’re especially useful for manufacturing products that have low levels of hazards and contamination. Because freezing only stops bacterial growth and related reactions until the food is thawed, they can be especially important.

Let’s take a closer look at GMP and HACCP.

What are Good Manufacturing Principles?

GMP can apply to food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and many other products. The term refers to a wide range of processes and workflows, along with accompanying documentation, that helps to establish expectations around quality and safety. 

The goal is to achieve a high degree of consistency from one batch to another. That’s true in terms of quality, safety, and fitness for the intended use. Crucially, having current GMP in place means businesses align their processes with the standards set by the relevant authority or regulatory agency.

Concepts covered in GMP range from sanitation to proper equipment, staff training, and auditing. It’s a very broad set of guiding principles. They are intended to ensure positive outcomes across the production process and in every major aspect of it.

It’s important to note that GMP are not the same as a safe and successful production method. These practices don’t concern themselves with manufacture of a certain kind of frozen food item, for example. Instead, they set standards that businesses must meet to align with regulations.

What is HACCP?

A container ship sits in port.

HACCP refers to a set of food safety controls that prevent a variety of hazards from impacting the products produced. That includes physical hazards as well as biological and chemical contaminants. The goal isn’t the complete elimination of these risks. Instead, it’s to mitigate them, reducing them to a safe level.

The critical difference between HACCP and other common approaches for quality control is its active and involved nature. More comprehensive and systematic planning helps eliminate the potential for hazards to be introduced to or make their way into products. In contrast, some quality control processes simply aim to remove any contaminated products after a production run finishes.

HACCP emphasizes longer-term recordkeeping, South Dakota State University explains. That makes it easier for regulators from government agencies to understand the big picture of a business’s 

HACCP plans are developed for individual products and even for the same product manufactured in more than one location, at times. They take different possibilities for risk, specific workflows, and other considerations into account. That’s part of what makes them so effective, but also requires careful consideration from producers.

HACCP is required in the US for producers of certain products. All other companies that produce foods must create a Food Safety Plan that fulfills a similar purpose.

Post Production: Frozen Food Logistics Companies and the Cold Chain

With food safety assured in production through tools like HACCP and GMP, the cold chain begins in the production facility. At a minimum, the producer must have the tools in place to chill the product to the desired temperature.

The company will also need to maintain a safe temperature in storage until the product can start its journey. Producers may need to partner with another business to provide certain services early in the cold chain if they lack the proper equipment.

Distinctions in Freezing Food in the Cold Chain

When frozen foods are produced, most of them reach a point where they must be brought down to the correct temperature for storage, temperature-controlled warehousing, and shipping.

These freezing processes are significantly faster than standard refrigeration and freezing. The goal is to quickly cool the products. This helps to minimize bacterial growth by reducing the time the food spends in the temperature range where bacteria flourish. 

One added and powerful advantage of fast freezing is its ability to minimize the size of ice crystals formed. That helps preserve the taste and texture of the frozen food itself.

Common methods of initially freezing food include cryogenic freezing. This was the first widespread, commercially successful method for freezing food used in the United States. It traditionally uses liquid nitrogen to quickly reach the desired temperature. 

Mechanical freezing is the other common method. It uses the same basic concepts as a standard industrial or home freezer, but at a scale and strength that achieves faster freezing. It is effective, but doesn’t yield as good of a final product as cryogenic freezing.

The initial freezing process is absolutely vital for a successful cold chain, but the process only occurs as part of production. All other freezers in the process are used to keep a product that’s already frozen in the same state.

Packaging for the Cold Chain

The right packaging can make the difference between spoiled foods and a close call — and a product that can still be sold. Packaging in the cold chain should fulfil the same objectives as for shelf-stable food items and other inventory. 

Specifically should physically protect, separate, and secure foods for transport. Cold chain packaging has the added objective of temperature control. Packaging is designed to delay heat transfer by incorporating insulating properties. 

A variety of specialized items for that purpose may also be used. That includes everything from gel packs to specialized pallets designed to keep the temperature of the contents on it low. 

Inclusion of Temperature Monitoring Sensors and Indicators

The packaging process needs to include sensors that reliably measure temperature and related metrics. This helps all stakeholders ensure the frozen food within remains at an acceptable temperature. Modern technology allows for internet-connected devices to provide this data. It’s also common to track shipments of frozen foods via GPS as they make their journey.

With the packaging helping to keep its contents out of the danger zone and monitors to ensure safety, frozen food can start making its way to its destination.

Transportation in the Cold Chain

Reefer containers sit in a port

Frozen foods can take all sorts of paths through local, regional, nationwide, and global supply chains. A small ice cream manufacturer might only distribute its products to a few regional grocery and convenience stores, for example.

Businesses may have their own distribution infrastructure, especially for moving products through the cold chain over short distances. Companies may own and operate their own refrigerated trucks. They may also work with a frozen food logistics provider to handle the task.

Intermodal Freight Transport and the Cold Chain

On the other side of the supply chain, frozen foods may need to cross oceans and multiple national borders to reach their destination. In these cases, intermodal freight transport is generally the most efficient and reliable path for distribution. 

Using standardized shipping containers makes it easier to transport all kinds of goods in bulk via trains, ships, planes, trucks, and intermodal ports. No matter what’s inside, the equipment is designed to safely handle each container.

When it comes to the cold chain, a special type of shipping container is required. Refrigerated containers, also known as reefers, include a refrigeration unit capable of keeping the container at the desired temperature. 

The cooling unit can connect to power sources supplied by the vehicles transporting them. They can also connect to power at storage facilities. A genset (short for generator set) is a crucial piece of equipment that keeps the container cool when on a truck, or when other power sources aren’t available.

The intermodal shipping process is efficient overall. However, it’s crucial to have as many safeguards in place to protect products as possible. Even a short excursion into the dangerous temperature range can be enough to spoil a  shipment — and cause a financial loss.

Shipments can take many paths to reach their final destinations, carried on a variety of vehicles and moving through several intermodal ports. Eventually, these reefer containers will reach the port closest to their final destination. While the large majority of the journey is over, it’s absolutely critical to ensure products remain frozen and secured until they reach the end consumer.

Let’s take a closer look at the last few steps of the cold chain.

The Indispensable Role of Drayage in The Cold Chain

Frozen raspberries move through the production line.

Top frozen food logistics providers don’t only ensure a reefer container makes it from port to port. Highly skilled and specialized trucking businesses serve as a vital link between the intermodal freight transport system and the businesses that ultimately sell or use these products.

Drayage refers to short-distance trucking that brings shipping containers out of ports and onto the road. The destination could be a climate-controlled warehouse for further storage, another port, or your own company’s distribution facility. 

While drayage doesn’t involve lots of time on the road, it’s a complex process that requires a unique combination of factors for success. That includes:

  • Skilled and experienced drivers. Drivers must ensure a container is safely loaded onto their chassis and then successfully transport it to its final destination. In the case of the cold chain, drivers must also select the appropriate equipment, maintain gensets on reefer containers, and more. Drivers must also be properly licensed and certified — not only to operate a vehicle, but to enter and work in a secure environment like a port.
  • The right equipment: Specialized equipment may be needed for heavy loads. Access to different chassis is vital for working with all sizes of reefer containers. A cold storage warehouse can be vital for protecting a shipment when delays occur.
  • Effective customer support and service. Careful screening of drivers, competitive rates that don’t cut into service quality, container tracking, and other services are crucial for overall success.

At Iraheta Bros., we’re proud of our deep experience not only in drayage trucking but as experts in frozen food logistics management. We operate a steam-clean facility to maintain food-grade containers, offer climate-controlled warehousing, and ensure our drivers can troubleshoot common issues with reefer containers.
When your business needs a drayage partner that knows frozen food logistics management inside and out, don’t hesitate. Work with Iraheta Bros – Request a Quote Today!

Effective Frozen Food Logistics Management: Understanding the Cold Chain

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