Australians love their fresh fruit and vegetables. The country is lucky enough to have some of the best produce in the world, not only in terms of quality, but also the variants – from the tropical climes of North Queensland to the more arid pastures of South Australia, there is plenty of variety for consumers to choose from.
There is a catch though. And the ‘but’ is supply chain – specifically cold chain supply. Australia has what is known as the tyranny of distance. Due to it being a large, dry, generally hot continent, getting produce to market, and in premium condition, can be an issue.
This is not lost on the Australian Food Cold Chain Council’s chairman Mark Mitchell. Mitchell has been in the cooling industry for the best part of 40 years, and is not only passionate about the industry, but is aware of its unique place in the heart of the food chain. He also knows that it is an industry that struggles to meet the demands of its contemporaries in other parts of the world like Europe and UK.
“The first thing you have to say when you talk about cold chain in Australia is, we’ve got one of the hardest jobs in the world,” he said. “For a developed country like Australia, we have a huge continent, high ambient conditions and small population. Logistically, we have a complex cold chain. To move food in the cold chain efficiently and economically in Australia there’s got to be a level of load sharing between third-party logistics providers and cold storage facilities. When food travels from one end of the country to the other, it passes through more than one set of hands to get to its destination. It becomes a complex cold chain. There is no way to avoid that.”
And while Australia does reasonably well given the constrictions of distances and lack of population, Mitchell believes that the industry can do better. But to do so, it also needs to start getting some of the basics right.
“Once you get third-party logistics involved it is further complicated,” he said. “If you want to get something from Cairns to Melbourne – it could be mangoes, garlic or whatever – it will most likely go through a transport firm independent from the sender and receiver of the food at either end of the chain. Then it may even transfer to another one or two transporters or cross-dock points in cities or towns before it reach the final stages of transfer into a transport or distribution centre to the supermarket.”
Quality can suffer when doors are continuously being opened and closed as one link in the chain goes through these transferral processes. Add to that a truck travelling on an eight to ten-hour haul, and the ambient temperature of the road – especially in summer – being very high, then it is no wonder some produce doesn’t arrive at the supermarket in pristine condition without appropriate temperature checks along the way. There are a several of things that can come into play to fix this, according to Mitchell – but better collaboration, training and industry driven regulations would be a great start.
He said that the cold chain is split into two points – critical control points and control points, and it is the former where collaboration needs to take place. And it’s not as though people don’t want to do the right thing, it’s just that the nature of the way of doing business in Australia is not conducive to collaboration.
“There is no single sector, stakeholder, or business type or group doing the wrong thing intentionally,” he said. “But we need collaboration at the critical links and this is the where the resistance comes. The resistance comes because the nature of business in Australia – and it’s just the way it is – is that you compete hard, for very low margins, and compete very aggressively in the marketplace to do what you do. This means cold chain businesses are encouraged – whether intentionally or not – to not inform the next guy in the chain with temperature data and other food safety information. This very strong resistance by different stakeholders to collaboration, is not because they don’t want to do the right thing – it’s just this sense of handing over data and information creates a fear that it will make the business un-competitive.”
Mitchell gives temperature as an example – one of the more critical aspects of a fully functional cold chain. When one person in the chain meets another link or critical control point at the end of their part of the cold chain transport journey, it’s the person doing the handover’s duty to give the temperature and any other information related to the role they played in the cold chain role to the next person. And this is where it can break down.
“Typically at a critical control point, a receiver is supposed to accept a temperature from the deliverer,” said Mitchell. “The receiver is supposed to check that temperature and go, ‘Yes, it’s supposed to be 3˚C. I’ll just make sure that is the case. Yes it is.’ The link is closed because the deliverer and receiver have agreed on the temperature. There is transparency and collaboration because they both own the temperature. This doesn’t happen often enough in Australia.”
Then there is the training. Even something that sounds rather simple such as reading a thermometer can be an issue because people are not trained how to use them properly , according to Mitchell.
“There are standard instructions for thermometers. There are things out there that you can buy and download that can show you how to use a thermometer,” he said. “There are manufacturing standards that will tell you how to buy the right thermometer, or teach you how to use a thermometer properly in the cold chain.
“I was speaking to some fresh produce people the other day – one of them in charge of the packing shed said they have backpackers and transient workers coming through that, not only do they not know how to use a thermometer, they don’t know how to keep a fridge door shut.”
But, isn’t a thermometer just a thermometer?
“Not at all,” said Mitchell. “It depend on the method of measurement you’re using. You could be using the wrong thermometer on the wrong product getting the wrong result. Thermometer manufacturers will put out a training course on how to use thermometers, but there are no standards.”
Which brings up the last point, regulations that might have to be implemented to make sure certain standards are met.
“We do have standards in Australia and globally. The ultimate for cold chain is the United Nations ATP agreement The Agreement on the International Carriage of Perishable Foodstuffs, and both the global and Australian industry diligently – to the best of their ability – follows them,” said Mitchell. “However, even the Europeans with all their regulations and all their good intentions, once they get a complicated cold chain like Australia, you start to see more failures. In saying that, the ultimate collaborators in cold chain are our European colleagues. You look at a cold chain in Germany, Scandinavia or France; it’s a single and collaborative effort. They have continuous temperature monitoring required on all vehicles. You have temperature handover requirements at critical control points.
“The solutions that the AFCCC are pushing for, is get a set of regulations put together – based on what is already there and based on what we already know – and consolidate it into a single, concerted industry code of practice. Such a code would preferably be adopted and managed by industry.
“It is all about putting all the good stuff together. The industry knows that putting it through a set of guidelines that encourages an environment that brings about a change without a burdensome cost to industry is a good start.”
When summing up the cold chain in Australia, Mitchell it blunt. He goes as far as to say that he believes the term cold chain is a misnomer; he thinks of it more as a risk chain.
“Most stakeholders in Australia run a risk chain, because they are forced to. No one’s paying them to do anything differently,” he said. “The nature of business in this country has pushed them to the brink where it is not possible for them to participate in a compliant cold chain. They’ll do their bit. They’ll have refrigeration in their section, and they’ll comply to themselves, but they won’t close the link to the next guy.”