The term cold chain or cool chain denotes the series of actions and equipment applied to maintain a product within a specified low-temperature range from harvest/production to consumption. A cold chain is a temperature-controlled supply chain. An unbroken cold chain is an uninterrupted series of refrigerated production, storage and distribution activities, along with associated equipment and logistics, which maintain a desired low-temperature range.
It is used to preserve and to extend and ensure the shelf life of products, such as fresh agricultural produce, seafood, frozen food, photographic film, chemicals, and pharmaceutical products. Such products, during transport and when in transient storage, are sometimes called cool cargo. Unlike other goods or merchandise, cold chain goods are perishable and always en-route towards end use or destination, even when held temporarily in cold stores and hence commonly referred to as cargo during its entire logistics cycle.
Cold chains are common in the food and pharmaceutical industries and also in some chemical shipments. One common temperature range for a cold chain in pharmaceutical industries is 2 to 8 °C (36 to 46 °F), but the specific temperature (and time at temperature) tolerances depend on the actual product being shipped.
Unique to fresh produce cargoes, the cold chain requires to additionally maintain product specific environment parameters which include air quality levels (carbon dioxide, oxygen, humidity and others), which makes this the most complicated cold chain to operate.
COMPONENTS OF COLD CHAIN
The cold chain is thus a science, a technology, and a process. It is a science since it requires an understanding of the chemical and biological processes linked with perishability. It is a technology since it relies on physical means to ensure 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 main elements of a cold chain involve:
- Cooling systems. Bringing commodities such as food to the appropriate temperature for processing, storage, and transportation.
- Cold storage. Providing facilities for the storage of goods over a period of time, either waiting to be ship to a distant market, at an intermediary location for processing and distribution and close to the market for distribution.
- Cold transport. Having conveyances available to move goods while maintaining stable temperature and humidity conditions as well as protecting their integrity.
- Cold processing and distribution. Providing facilities for the transformation and processing of goods as well as ensuring sanitary conditions. Consolidating and deconsolidating loads (crates, boxes, pallets) for distribution.
The Emergence Of Cold Chain Logistics
Since the 1950s, third party logistics providers began to emerge and institute new methods for transporting global cold chain commodities. Before their emergence, cold chain processes were mostly managed in house by the manufacturer or the distributor. In the United States, Food and Drug Administration restrictions and accountability measures over the stability of the cold chain incited many of these companies to rely on specialty couriers rather than completely overhauling their supply chain facilities.
Specialization has led many companies to not only rely on major shipping service providers such as the United Parcel Service (UPS) and FedEx but also to a more focused industry that has developed a niche logistical expertise around the shipping of temperature-sensitive products. The potential to understand local rules, customs, and environmental conditions, as well as an estimation of the length and time of a distribution route, making them an important factor in global trade. As a result, the logistics industry is experiencing a growing level of specialization and segmentation of cold chain shipping in several potential niche markets within global supply chains. Whole new segments of the distribution industry have been very active in taking advantage of the dual development of the spatial extension of supply chains supported by globalization and the significant variety of goods in circulation.
The reliance on the cold chain continues to gain importance. Within the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, the testing, production, and movement of drugs rely heavily on controlled and uncompromised transfer of shipments. A large portion of the pharmaceutical products that move along the cold chain is in the experiment or developmental phase. Clinical research and trials are a major part of the industry that costs millions of dollars, but one that also experiences a failure rate of around 80%. About 10% of medical drugs are temperature sensitive and if these shipments should experience any unanticipated exposure to variant temperature levels, they run the risk of becoming ineffective or even harmful to patients.
In all the supply chains it is concerned with, cold chain logistics favor higher levels of integration since maintaining temperature integrity requires a higher level of control of all the processes involved. It may even incite third-party logistics providers to acquire elements of the supply chain where time and other performance factors are the most important, even farming. This may involve the acquisition of produce farms (e.g. orange groves) to ensure supply reliability. Temperature control in the shipment of foodstuffs is a component of the industry that has continued to rise in relation to international trade. As a growing number of countries focus their export economy around food and produce production, the need to keep these products fresh for extended periods of time has gained in importance for commercial and health reasons. The cold chain is also a public health issue since the proper transport of food products will reduce the likeliness of bacterial, microbial and fungal contamination of the shipment. Also, the ability to transport medical goods over long distances enables more effective responses to healthcare issues (e.g. distribution of vaccines).