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Due to nascent cold chain, agri losses as high as $8-15 billion in India
Saturday, 17 August, 2019, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Dr A Thahira Banu and Janaline Lunghar
Global food losses amounting to 25 to 50 per cent of production volumes, caloric content and/or market values depending on the commodity have been reported in recent times.

The cold chain is a well-known method for reducing food losses and food waste, and has long been promoted by established industry focussed organisations such as the International Institute of Refrigeration, the World Food Logistics Organization  and the Global Cold Chain Alliance.

Cold chain involves the transportation of temperature-sensitive products along a supply chain through thermal and refrigerated packaging methods and logistic planning to protect the integrity of these shipments. There are several means in which cold chain products can be transported, including refrigerated trucks and railcars, refrigerated cargo ships as well as air cargo.

Cold chain is a science, a technology and a process. It is a science since it
requires the understanding of chemical and biological processes linked with perishability. It is a technology since it relies on physical means to insure appropriate temperature conditions along the supply chain. It is a process since a series of tasks must be performed to prepare, store, transport and monitor temperature-sensitive products.

The use of cold storage systems to prevent perishable food losses is widely used in developed countries and can be highly cost-effective compared to continually increasing production to meet increasing demands for perishable foods. The use of cold technologies in the development of agricultural supply chains and horticultural products has began early in 1950s along with the growth of the mechanical refrigeration industry, but cold chains are still limited in most developing countries.

India is one of the largest producers and taking a lead in various agricultural products. But due to fledgling cold supply chain there is a heavy loss of food and other resources. These losses have been stated to be as high as US$8 to 15 billion per annum from the agriculture sector alone.

A cold chain is an uninterrupted temperature-controlled transport and storage system of refrigerated goods between upstream suppliers and consumers designed to maintain the quality and safety of food products. Unexpected temperature changes or abuses in food cold chain can lead to compromised food safety and food quality that ultimately can result in loss of consumer confidence and increased levels of food waste. It has been reported that roughly one-third of global food production is wasted annually.

Table 1: The Cold Chain, Food Security and Economic Development

Variable   Global   Developed Countries Developing Countries 
Population in 2009 (in billions of inhabitants) 6.83   1.23   5.6
Population in 2050 (forecast, in billions of inhabitants) 9.15   1.28   7.87
Refrigerated storage capacity (m3/1000 inhabitants) 52   200   19
Food losses (all products) 25%   10%   28%
Losses of fruits and vegetables   35%   15% 40%
Losses of perishable foodstuffs due to lack of refrigeration   20%   9% 23%

Source: IIR. 2009. The role of refrigeration in worldwide nutrition

Cold Chain Challenges and More
Although, there is large production of perishable foods, the cold chain potential remains untapped in developing countries due to multiple reasons like high initial investment, high share of single commodity cold storage; lack of basic enabling infrastructure, lack of awareness for handling perishable produce and so on.

Infrastructure within a country is the main key aspect in a company’s selection of export markets. Electricity and IT infrastructure must be sufficient to support logistics operations. Transportation infrastructure must be capable of supporting the reliable distribution of a product within the country or region without excessive delays.

The International Association of Refrigerated Warehouses has noted a strong correlation of cold storage capacity to a country’s transportation score. Another important aspect for market decision-making is the quality and skill level of the potential work force in the market. Industry must have the capacity to train and develop the talent and the management required to run an efficient supply chain operation.

Each cold chain differs by region, location and temperature requirements; nonetheless, ensuring a cold chain for agricultural products starts at the farm. Produce often goes through pre-cooling at the harvest location and is then loaded onto a truck or other transportation unit designed to keep the produce protected from the sun and held within a desirable temperature range, as it travels to a processor facility or a temperature-controlled warehouse.

In developing regions or locations, transportation may be carried out on covered trucks or smaller carts; in more developed locations, these transportation solutions can include insulated reefer trucks.

Globally, cold chain systems are crucial to growth for trade in perishable products and to the worldwide availability of food and health supplies. Each year, billions of tonnes of fresh food products and millions of dollars’ worth of US exports are lost due to poor cold chain systems in developing markets. The World Economic Forum lists food crises as fourth on its top global risks of highest concern for the next 10 years.
Billions of dollars are spent on improving agricultural processes to create higher food yields, but the fact that nearly half of all food never makes it to a consumer’s plate is largely ignored. Global losses in the food industry total more than $750 billion annually reported by FAO.

These losses primarily result from lack of proper facilities, improper food safety handling procedures and insufficient training for those personnel working in the cold chain. International Association Refrigerated Warehouses 2014 reported that over $260 billion of annual biopharma sales are dependent on cold chain logistics to ensure the efficacy of their products.

Use of Cold Chains
An integrated cold chain encompasses the management of the movement of perishable food products from the field, ranch or body of water through the entire post-harvest chain to the final consumer. The primary segments of an integrated cold chain, which include 1) packing and cooling fresh food products, 2) food processing (i.e., freezing of certain processed foods, 3) cold storage (short- or long-term warehousing of chilled or frozen foods), 4) distribution (cold transport and temporary warehousing under temperature controlled conditions) and 5) marketing (refrigerated or freezer storage and displays at wholesale markets, retail markets and foodservice operations) can be simple or complex, low tech or high tech.

Cold chain logistics is the planning and management of the interactions and transitions between these five segments, in order to keep foods at their optimum temperature for maintenance of quality, food safety and prevention of waste and economic losses. Speed is often the key to success when handling and marketing perishable foods using a cold supply chain.

Apparently, there are many technical, logistical and investment challenges as well as economic opportunities related to the use of the cold chain. Policy makers in the agriculture and food sectors must work together to promote the use of cold chain technology to improve logistics, maintenance, services, infrastructure, education and management skills, and create sustainable markets for the design, use and funding of cold chains for reducing perishable food losses.

Selecting Appropriate Cooling Tech
There is a wide range of options and technologies for producing cold conditions for food handling, processing, storage and transport. Some are relatively simple and inexpensive, while other technologies intended to achieve the same results and more sophisticated to handle. For instance precooling, operators can choose from simple farm-based methods such as using ice, to more complex systems for forced air, hydro-cooling or vacuum cooling.

For storage, there are options for food handlers that range from small walk-in cold rooms to large-scale commercial refrigerated warehouses. Below table shows the typical examples of various technology options. Also, the suitability will depend upon the food products being handled and the level of sophistication of the value chain.

Table 2: Examples of mechanical technologies available for refrigeration/freezing

Cold chain step Small-scale   Large-scale   
Pre-cooling systems    Portable forced air cooling systems    Vacuum cooling 
        Forced air cooling 
Cold storage  Walk-in cold rooms    Refrigerated warehouses   
  CoolBot equipped cold room       
Processing-  Direct expansion chilling of bulk milk    Blast freezing   
chilling or freezing  “instant” chilling of milk    IQF   
      Vacuum cooling of packaged meats   
Refrigerated transport  USDA porta-cooler    Reefer vans   
      Refrigerated marine containers   
      Refrigerated intermodal containers (for road, rail and sea shipping)   

Major cold chain technologies providing temperature-controlled environment during transport involve:
    • Dry ice - Solid carbon dioxide is about -80°C and is capable of keeping a shipment frozen for an extended period of time.
    • Gel packs - Products that must be stored in a temperature range between 2 and 8°C. The common method to provide this temperature is to use gel packs, or packages that contain phase changing substances that can go from solid to liquid and vice versa to control an environment.
    • Eutectic plates - Also known as “cold plates.” The principle is similar to gel packs. Instead, plates are filled with a liquid and can be reused many times. Eutectic plates have a wide range of applications, such as maintaining cold temperature for rolling refrigerated units.
    • Liquid nitrogen - An especially cold substance, of about -196°C, used to keep packages frozen over a long period of time.
    • Quilts - Insulated pieces that are placed over or around freight to act as buffer in temperature variations and to maintain the temperature relatively constant.
    • Reefers - Generic name for a temperature-controlled transport unit, which can be a van, small truck, a semi-trailer or a standard ISO container. These units, which are insulated, are specially designed to allow temperature- controlled air circulation maintained by an attached and independent refrigeration plant. A reefer is therefore able to keep the cargo temperature cool and even warm.

The use of cold chain does not solve all or fits all as some of the foods are highly perishable in nature. Nonetheless, uninterrupted cold chain can prevent to some extent by controlling parameters of temperature, humidity and atmospheric composition, and along with utilising proper handling procedures and cold chain service providers can increase the product life of fresh foods for days, weeks or even months. These monitors allow the products to hold their value longer and expand their market.

Thus, promoting and investments in cold chain can prevent the loss of foods after they have been produced, harvested, processed, packaged, stored and transported to markets.

(The authors are assistant professor, department of home science, Gandhigram Rural Institute , Gandhigram. They can be contacted at
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