CAI Transportation Blog

Timing is everything: logistics strategies in the food supply chain, part two


In last week’s article, we looked at some of the challenges facing food suppliers, especially when it comes to transporting their products to consumers safely. Factors like foodborne illness and spoilage compress the timeline for the safe shipment of food products and highlight the importance of strict controls and smart planning.

Between strategic communication, new technological developments, and updated distribution philosophies, here are some of the ways food producers are adapting to get their products from their origin to consumers’ plates safely and on time:

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems

Our understanding of the safest conditions for food transport continues to evolve, shaping the development of regulations and industry best practices. Food safety laws such as the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act and the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius keep pace with new developments, and individual food production companies implement new internal practices to ensure safe and successful transportation of goods. Following these regulations and best practices requires extensive communication at every step and with every party involved in the process.

However, much of the communication about specifications and timelines that happens is still done the old-fashioned way: using paper documents or phone calls. Not only is this way of doing things inefficient, it’s also prone to error. That’s why many food distributors are looking to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems to strengthen and streamline their quality control processes.

An ERP system serves as a central electronic database and communication tool that all involved parties can access. The shipping conditions (such as packaging, temperature, and vehicle preparation) required per customer or per food type can be saved in one location. These requirements (or “rules”) can be used to generate tests and checks for personnel to complete during loading or unloading. Results and records of these operations are stored electronically via mobile devices, making it easier and faster for supply chain managers to create audit trails or to prove compliance with regulations. The accessibility and efficiency offered by an ERP can prevent most communication-related quality control issues before they arise.

While the goal of full, real-time visibility into the whole supply chain is probably at least a few years away, widespread adoption of ERP technology can get the logistics industry one step closer, saving valuable time while still ensuring every safety measure is met.

Ripening en route

Timing is a key factor in getting any kind of food to consumers for safe consumption, but it’s especially crucial in the cold chain. Strict guidelines about packaging, labeling, and transportation have been developed to prevent widespread foodborne illness. Though much of the focus on disease prevention targets animal products (especially deli meats and soft cheeses), fruits and vegetables bring their own kinds of risk. Overripe or damaged produce are highly susceptible to decay or infection. While packaging and handling precautions can minimize damage in transport, ensuring that food arrives at the correct ripeness for consumption can be a tricky undertaking.

Some produce items— like citrus fruits, berries, and watermelons— do not ripen on their own after they’ve been harvested. These crops need to be harvested at or near the peak of ripeness, which makes long-distance shipments more time-sensitive. However, some fruits— such as avocados, bananas, and most stone fruits (except for cherries)— ripen naturally after being harvested. Growers and distributors are able to take advantage of this by harvesting these items before they’re ripe and allowing them to finish ripening while in transit. For these items, efficient transportation and climate control measures like refrigeration and ethylene controls can help reduce the risk of over-ripeness or spoilage in transit.

Promising new technological advances, such as wireless sensors that can detect spoilage in produce containers, present exciting potential for the future of safety in the food supply chain. In the meantime, preventing damage or unnecessary exposure to pathogenic conditions requires food companies and transporters to stay vigilant. This means shortening the supply chain wherever possible to reduce the time to market, and ensuring that each step in the cold chain— from initial packing to final distribution— adheres to temperature and climate controls.

More localized distribution centers

Like many other links in the global supply chain, food distributors are starting to take a page from Amazon’s logistics playbook. Over the past decade, the e-commerce giant has pioneered and (more or less) perfected an alternative to the traditional hub-and-spoke model favored by most large-scale logistics operations. Instead, their decentralized model relies on moving distribution centers closer to the final user, allowing for quicker deployment and shorter shipping times.

With their acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon has signaled that they plan to apply this method to food distribution as well. By treating each Whole Foods store as its own distribution center, Amazon has been able to pilot two-hour delivery at many of its stores while maintaining food quality and freshness.

For competing food companies, following this model may look like finding or building more food-grade warehouses in emerging markets to bring food closer to the final customer. This will certainly require more investment, but it will shorten the last leg of transportation, which is key for maintaining the freshness of food products.

For non-agricultural products, this method may also mean moving the final steps of food manufacturing closer to the end location. For instance, some beverage manufacturers currently ship syrup or juice concentrates using bag-in-box methods, outsourcing the blending and bottling processes to smaller, more localized facilities. In addition to reducing the amount of necessary shipping capacity, this method can help ensure products arrive in consumers’ hands at peak freshness.

Working with outside experts

One of the biggest logistics challenges food suppliers face is finding carriers who are reliable and transparent enough about their processes to ensure the safety of the products in transit. Each category and type of food has unique shipping requirements that need to be adhered to, and the consequences of failure to comply can be severe. With regular news stories of recalls and public health scares, the potential damage to a company’s reputation makes these concerns very real and pressing.

In addition to the challenge of finding quality carriers, sourcing enough capacity is also a pain point for many food supply chain managers. This problem can be especially pronounced for time-sensitive food shipments during peak season. Take cherries, for example; every September and October, air capacity is completely saturated carrying cherries from California and the Pacific Northwest to China, where there is a huge and enthusiastic market for the fruit. Finding capacity to transport cherries (or any other food product) during this time can be extremely competitive, as shipments are often booked far in advance of harvest.

For both of these common issues, it can be useful for food producers and distributors to outsource all or part of their logistics puzzle to a third-party logistics partner. By turning over the most challenging elements of the supply chain to an expert, shippers can expand the network of trustworthy carriers available to them. And far from simply managing the nuts and bolts of moving freight, an experienced logistics provider can ensure every carrier is in compliance with global safety and regulatory requirements.

The food supply chain of the future

The expansion of the global food trade in the past several decades has allowed the world’s population to have access to a wider variety of foods than ever before, but there are still many difficulties to address in the coming years. The strategies food distributors currently use to get food to its destination safe for human consumption aren’t foolproof and require a fair amount of human vigilance. But potential future technological solutions show promise for increasing visibility and speed to market while minimizing the threat of illness. By continually adapting and embracing creative solutions for the safe transportation of food, the world’s farmers and food manufacturers can help create a future in which foodborne illness and hunger are footnotes in history textbooks.