Technological evolutions help preserve produce in transportation

Features - Food Safety

By incorporating different technologies, businesses can reduce food safety risks, increase food quality and extend shelf life.

March 25, 2019

Technologies such as temperature control and GPS tracking can help keep produce safe at a key point in the supply chain.
Photos: Adobe Stock

Transportation has long been one of the most unregulated aspects of the food supply’s chain of custody, particularly in relation to food safety. That all changed with the passage of the Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food rule of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Among the key aspects of that rule are requirements for ensuring the vehicle and equipment are capable of maintaining temperatures needed for food safety, and having monitoring mechanism and written procedures and records to ensure that food is transported under adequate temperature control.

For produce, temperature is often more a factor of quality than food safety. However, there are several instances in which food safety can be impacted by out-of-spec temperatures and environmental conditions, including:

  • If the produce has been subject to pathogenic contaminated in the field or during harvest (such as the 2018 E. coli contamination of romaine lettuce), higher temperatures can enable greater pathogenic growth.
  • Fresh-cut, bagged or packaged produce — as well as some more perishable fresh fruits and vegetables including strawberries, lettuce, herbs and mushrooms can require temperature controls. In fact, FDA advises that consumers store these at a temperature of 40° F or below and only purchase fresh-cut, bagged or packaged produce that is refrigerated or surrounded by ice. More information is available here.

But whether the produce is susceptible to food safety risks, its quality and shelf life is dependent on environmental controls. Thus, the continuing advancement of technologies designed for temperature control, maintenance and validation throughout the food’s transport can be invaluable, from temperature sensors to remote monitoring and GPS tracking.

“Keeping fresh produce ‘fresh’ requires maintaining a careful combination of temperature and humidity,” says Dr. Jennifer McEntire, the United Fresh Produce Association vice president of food safety and technology. “Data loggers have historically been used, and the evolution of technology now allows the capture and real-time analysis of conditions to maximize the quality of the product, which means reducing shrink.” While temperature sensors, remote monitoring and GPS are not new, the continuing improvement of these technologies enables growers to gain greater control over downstream traceability for the quality and food safety of their produce. As I discuss in Chapter 10 of the upcoming book “A Chain of Linked Nuances of Food Traceability,” not only can these monitor the temperature of the product, but with GPS tracking, the trucks can be monitored for location, speed, unscheduled breaks, etc. When drivers know they are being tracked, they may tend to be more diligent, resulting in added protection for food safety and food defense as well.”

The technologies have begun to be used recently, according to Produce Marketing Association vice president of supply chain efficiencies Ed Treacy.

“Over the last three to four years, the technology has really improved with the environmental and GPS sensing,” he says. Treacy is seeing the food industry using such technologies to provide full-chain visibility of the supply chain: to tie transparency all the way through the chain.

For growers in particular, he says, it can provide a record of what occurred between loading and unloading of the produce. Not only does this help ensure the maintenance of temperature, the remote sensors can provide an assessment of the environmental conditions, monitor for issues such as shock and ethylene levels, and record GPS coordinates in near real-time.

“I’ve seen companies use that to predict freshness,” Treacy says.

When drivers know they are being tracked, they may tend to be more diligent, resulting in added protection for food safety and food defense as well.

Some of the sensing equipment also will provide alerts. The grower or receiver can select the device by entering a serial number, then set standards, such as minimum or maximum temperatures, and corresponding alerts. The alerts can be sent to one’s phone, with notifications as soon as a condition goes out of range. In some cases, the alert may even precede the driver’s knowledge of an issue and enable the grower to contact the truck and potentially save the load.

“Sensor technology is evolving very, very quickly and getting relatively cheap,” Treacy says. In fact, he says, use has become fairly standard for long-distance loads moving across the country.

The GPS-enable devices also can increase operational efficiencies through the setting of geofencing, Treacy says. That is, the setting of a virtual geographic boundary, enabling an alert when the truck enters or leaves a specific area. For example, the grower or recipient could set the device to provide an alert when the truck is 50 or 100 miles from its destination. The notification enables the customer to prepare for the delivery and the grower to know if the truck has met its appointed time — or alert the customer that the truck is off schedule. This technology, Treacy says, “helps you manage your driver and see any exceptions.”

While the use of technology in transportation can help maintain the quality and value of fresh produce, it also is critical that growers ensure that drivers are following the requirements of FSMA’s Sanitary Transportation rule as well, Treacy says. “The Sanitary Transportation Rule is the best thing for food safety.” This is particularly true for produce because it is generally unpackaged — with even the containers used for items such as mushrooms and strawberries having vent holes through which the product can be contacted. To help prevent the possibility of contamination in transportation, he says, you need to know:

  • The history of the truck — what it has carried prior to picking up your load
  • The truck’s cleanliness — and what was used to clean it. Some cleaners and sanitizers can contaminate food it contacts.
  • If it has and does follow good transportation practices
  • The way it is loaded (e.g., fresh meats or allergens should never be placed above produce)

No matter how conscientious the grower is about food safety and quality from seed to harvest, a lack of controls during transportation can reduce all that to naught. And the perishable, unpackaged nature of produce simply adds to the risk.

“For many perishable items, maintaining quality is a race against the clock, and things like GPS tracking give greater insight into how to manage resources and inventory,” McEntire says. “Embracing these technologies can help improve efficiencies of perishable products.”

With all the advances of technology, Treacy sees a continued evolution of their deployment and use.

“Now that that information is made available, there are a lot of creative ways that people are using it,” he says.

Lisa is editor of Quality Assurance & Food Safety (QA) magazine and a Food Traceability chapter author.