Improving snack and bakery operations with advances in cold chain technologies

Cold chain technologies are essential for many snack and bakery companies to ensure food safety, quality, and compliance

As published in Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery

Cold chain technologies help companies monitor temperature in sensitive areas of its operation. This includes ingredient storage areas, finished product storage, refrigerated storage, and more. For some types of snack and bakery products, temperature monitoring and ongoing documentation is not only a key aspect of quality control and food safety, it’s required by federal regulations.

Key considerations

Neil Garrett, H&S/NEF director of quality and continuous improvement, Northeast Foods, Baltimore, MD, has a few suggestions for what bakers and snack producers need to know in order to successfully manage the cold chain aspects of their business:

  • Have continual motoring through the entire cold chain for complete traceability.
  • Understand how freeze/thaw impacts product quality. How quickly does the product freeze when it enters the freezer? Monitor freezer temperature over time. Monitoring temperatures during loading, transportation and delivery.
  • Temperature monitoring software is vital to the success during transportation and delivery. The software and temperature devices used should send real-time information and log historical events to ensure the integrity of the product is maintained. The system used should monitor the length of time the door stays open and how efficiently the freezer system on the trailer ran during transportation.
  • Freeze/thaw cycles, for both raw and finished products, is the No. 1 concern related to the quality of the product. For bread products, using advanced enzyme technologies can minimize the effect. Existing and emerging enzymes have the ability to modify bread crumb structure during baking. It allows frozen or chilled products to maintain similar eating qualities to freshly baked ones.

Temperature control and baking times are essential to ensure that enzyme activity in the product is not disrupted or even destroyed, Garrett notes. “Such enzymes are heat-sensitive during the baking process, and excessive temperatures can kill the enzymes that promote freshness and eating qualities after thaw.”

Advanced monitoring

Over the last several years, new technologies have become available in the market to help snack producers and bakeries manage their supply chains and other areas where temperature control is critical, says Jeremy Schneider, quality assurance and food safety expert, Controlant, Reykjavik, Iceland. “Although passive monitoring devices such as data loggers are commonly used within the industry, companies are finding that moving to real-time solutions not only improve business practices, it also provides insights that were simply unknown previously.” Such a move allows for preventative control instead of passive management.

Today, real-time monitoring solutions can provide complete cold chain visibility and control, says Schneider. “They consist of Internet of Things (IoT) data loggers, which collect time, temperature, location, and other environmental data, and automatically send it to a cloud-enabled software platform. Data for a particular shipment or for the entire supply chain can be viewed on demand. Reporting data can be easily accessed for sharing and audit purposes. Cost-reducing operational services offerings round out this technology, and include 24/7 monitoring and response services, which, along with the data, provide a virtual control tower and proactive response for all active shipments.”

A question that Controlant asks to those who are interested in pursuing a real time offering is how such a program will change the way that they do business. “Have they considered what insights real-time will provide over a passive monitoring solution? In addition to the obvious food safety and quality benefits, organizations are finding that they can improve logistics, supply chain, and vendor management in new and exciting ways. These types of savings can significantly improve supply chains by reducing waste and improving quality and food safety,” says Schneider.

A significant trend focuses on monitoring temperatures in the ‘’last mile’’ of transit—from distribution centers to the restaurant or retail outlet, notes Schneider. “The last mile provides unique challenges that many other technologies on the market are not equipped to handle. With real-time monitoring, organizations know with certainty when a shipment leaves a shipment site and when it delivers to the destination, in addition to each of the stops that it had made along the route.”

A significant concern for operators during last-mile transport is the assurance that the cold chain is controlled during stops prior to theirs, Schneider adds. “Is the refrigeration unit running in continuous mode during deliveries, and are the truck doors kept closed during each stop? These are significant concerns throughout the year, but especially during temperature extremes such as the heat of the summer.”

Monitoring and controlling temperatures at all stages of the cold chain is a critical aspect of food safety, says Ken Lynch, director of marketing, Senet, Portsmouth, NH. “Any interruption in the process can lead to waste, the risk of foodborne illnesses, and a failure to meet industry regulations.” IoT technologies, such as wireless sensors and low-power wide-area networks (LoRaWAN), can be used to monitor changes in temperature, moisture or other factors in real-time. “Data collected from these activities can be used to identify production and supply chain issues faster and to narrow the scope of potential loss or a recall. IoT sensor data can also be used to detect issues further upstream in the supply chain, including the origins of food or ingredients.”

An ideal wireless technology for cold chain and location monitoring is LoRaWAN protocol supported by the nonprofit LoRa Alliance, Lynch says. “LoRaWAN is an extremely robust technology that outperforms alternative technologies in challenging cold chain environments. Wireless LoRaWAN sensors are capable of reading and reporting temperature, humidity and location, and transmitting data over networks designed in public or public/private hybrid configurations. Because they only transmit as needed, LoRaWAN sensors are extremely power-efficient and can last for over 10 years on one set of standard AA batteries.”

LoRaWAN networks are designed to serve thousands, and ultimately millions, of connected devices, creating a low-cost, easy to operate and secure solution for cold chain applications, adds Lynch.

New technologies

There are many new technologies and devices being used across cold chain activities in singular deployments or as part of a larger temperature monitoring solution, says Lynch. “Senet partners with sensor manufactures and solution providers to deliver full cold chain solutions and offers several devices directly from the Senet Marketplace.” These partners include:

  • JRI. JRI LoRa SPY connected sensors provide wireless monitoring for temperature and other environmental parameters. These sensors are designed for monitoring equipment and thermo-sensitive products during transport and storage. The JRI MySirius web application allows users to monitor and manage data on a unique platform, specifically tailored for cold chain applications.
  • Laird. Laird Sentrius RS1xx temperature and humidity sensors enable battery-powered, local and wide-area sensor applications using LoRaWAN and Bluetooth 4.2. The RS1xx are small, rugged, and easily configurable sensors making it easier than ever to monitor environmental data with a network of sensors.
  • NanoThings. The NanoTag is the world’s smallest active temperature monitor, designed for single-use applications, but robust enough to live for years. The NanoTag is seamlessly compatible with the Portal to provide customers with the first autonomous temperature monitoring and touchpoint tracking solution for the cold chain and logistics industries.

In addition to supply chains, companies are beginning to take an active approach to the management of their facilities, such as refrigerated and frozen warehouses, and equipment such as walk-in refrigerators and reach-in coolers, says Schneider. “Through real-time monitoring, which employs IoT data loggers that automatically collect and send environmental data to a cloud-enabled software platform, management and quality teams are now able to monitor their facilities continuously and take an active role in assuring that the foods they are storing are kept safe and fresh.”

One consideration that organizations have when they weigh implementing a real-time monitoring program is how to manage their sites without overwhelming their teams, Schneider remarks. “Today’s technology now allows teams to work based on exception rather than active monitoring for anomalies, enabling operators to receive notice when an exception has occurred.”

In addition, exceptions can be set up based on levels of severity, such as a low temperature event, which will alert a manager, while a higher-level event will alert the food safety team. “Organizations can obtain many benefits from monitoring of all of their cold holding equipment—from reach-in coolers to walk-in coolers and distribution centers—to fully ensure that food safety and quality are managed,” says Schneider.

Businesses are finding great value in the implementation of stacked real-time temperature monitoring technologies at each level of their perishable cold chain, says Schneider. These might include in-bound transit from suppliers to distribution centers, last-mile from distribution centers to retail locations or foodservice operations, and facility monitoring within their sites. “When each of these technologies are implemented, it provides a level of insight previously unavailable to organizations. Having these types of insights provides companies with the ability to dive deeply into perennial issues that they have been unable to solve and now can implement preventative actions for systematic improvement.”

A question of accountability

When organizations begin a journey of implementing real-time monitoring within their supply chain or facilities, a question that is raised is who manages the day-to-day reports of incidents, which is especially true with a real-time, 24/7/365 program, Schneider states. “Most programs would require additional staffing, which of course is a significant request, if not a non-starter altogether. With new services offerings, such as Controlant’s Monitoring and Response Services (MARS), technology and service providers can act as an extension of their customers’ teams to intervene on their behalf whenever a temperature deviation occurs, facilitating corrective action with designated supply chain stakeholders and preventing product waste or quality issues from arising. This intervention service allows organizations to focus on the rich insights that real-time provides without the need to add additional labor to manage their day-to-day incidents.”

The future of real-time monitoring, and the aggregated data that it provides, says Schneider, entails rich dashboard analytics and insights that can help businesses identify their primary risks and focus their attention accordingly to drive continuous improvements throughout their operation.