Farm to Table: 4 Interesting Food Logistics Facts You Should Know
With the recent General Mills flour contamination scare, now’s as good a time as ever to learn about food safety. While our ancestors might have foraged, planted and reaped, hunted, or fished for survival, most of us have the convenience of picking up everything we need right from the store. You don’t need to be a master farmer or butcher, however, to know that boxes of pancake mix and jars of salsa don’t just grow on trees. Granted, you know where everything might come from, but how exactly does it get from a field hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from your kitchen table?
Food logistics in America plays a much larger role than what we readily give it credit for. According to MCS Logistics, the distribution system of our food is “one of the most overlooked aspects of the food safety chain, yet it is one of the most crucial to ensuring the quality and safety of the food we eat.” Not only that, but distribution also plays a sizeable role in managing waste, a problem America and other countries have been fighting for decades.
In fact, a 2015 estimate quoted roughly 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year globally, which equates to $1 trillion USD in wasted cash and 3.3 billion extra tons of carbon dioxide from its breakdown, contributing to the rise of greenhouse gases. Of this, from all fruits and vegetables shipped across the world, anywhere from 2-20% of produce ends up wasted either from “improper handling, quality deterioration during transportation, and inadequate […] cooling and storage” in developed countries. That number’s even higher for developing countries at 24-40%.
While these numbers might be staggering (again, 2 out of every 5 fruits and veggies are potentially unusable by the time they can even reach store shelves in some places) and we can all do our part to cut down on food waste, rest assured knowing you aren’t alone. Here are a few ways our own food logistics services are taking up the fight against contamination and waste:
Transport and equipment inspections
Regardless of origin and destination — whether it’s a food supplier shipping ingredients to restaurants or restaurants delivering prepared meals to their customers — food must always be kept at the proper temperature, wherever it goes. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (or FSIS) covers federal guidelines for proper food storage along all the stages of transit, though each state, county, and other forms of local government might institute additional regulations to supplement them. But no matter where you go, every food delivery truck worth its refrigeration unit goes through numerous inspections, with responsible operators ensuring that food safety and quality standards are upheld. If you (as an individual) are particularly worried, doing your homework on the standards and guidelines both of local government agencies and food distributors can go a long way in putting your mind (and stomach) at ease.
No matter if it’s a large delivery truck or a restaurant on wheels, regular inspections of storage compartments and other areas where food is present can also save a lot of time, money, and energy in the long run. By making sure these areas are clean and free of dirt, grime, and other debris and the insulation is still doing its job keeping the cool air in and bugs, dirt, and humidity out, food delivery companies can cut out potential waste from food simply sitting in the backs of their trucks. Because… you know… no one likes melted ice cream or meat-juice-soaked vegetables.
On a regular basis, companies might also subscribe to pre-loading procedures which go through all the steps of cleaning, checking, and sanitizing before food products are even loaded up. By establishing good technical and cleanliness habits, the journey from farm to table goes a lot smoother knowing the cargo’s in a hygienic, temperature-controlled environment. But that last part’s a whole other beast.
Ensuring the correct temperature
The magic of artificial cooling we like to call refrigeration has been around just shy of two centuries now, but that hasn’t made the alchemy of it all any easier. Food Safety Magazine actually attributes “maintaining control of the cold chain” as one of the largest challenges for today’s food distributors.
It might be a no-brainer to keep frozen and refrigerated foods cold and holding them at the proper temperature. Even a little exposure to the bottom rungs of the temperature danger zone (the total range is defined between 40ºF – 140º), while not necessarily resulting in immediate contamination, can cause water condensation inside the packaging, affecting the overall quality of the product itself (and promoting even more bacterial growth).
In addition to regular equipment inspections, distributors assure that the cold chain remains unbroken through various practices like documenting food and container temperatures before and after each loading/unloading, placing responsibility for product integrity on the driver, and proper separation and disposal of any product that might have become damaged or contaminated along the way. By packing food products effectively (separated as dry, refrigerated, or frozen goods) and maintaining proper temperatures, distributors stand to keep their bottom line intact. While some lesser reputable companies might worry about the cost of effective refrigeration, the waste from food and potential litigation for negligence resulting in food contamination and other related illnesses might be the larger, riskier expense to gamble on.
As with any food-related business, food distributors also observe the rule of “First in, First out” in the quest for food safety and maximum quality assurance. Food Safety Magazine gives a glimpse of what that might look like for an average facility:
“Product rotation at distribution facilities is tracked and carefully managed. As each pallet of product is received on the dock, it is assigned a ‘license plate’–a bar code and a unique ID number that describes the contents. The product is then taken to the aisle and slot in which it will be stored, and the location number is entered into the system. Received product typically is placed into ‘reserve’ slots. When the ‘pick’ slot for that product becomes empty, warehouse staff will be directed by computer as to which pallet to insert next to ensure first-in, first-out accuracy.”
In other words, food products that have waited in the facility the longest are the ones that ship first, making sure they’re still enjoyable by the time they reach their destination. If FIFO wasn’t followed, food (especially perishables like fruits and vegetables, seafood, meat, and dairy products) could potentially be left to rot on storage shelves without any order. More simply put, FIFO goes hand-in-hand with shelf-life-o.
Much like on the trucks themselves, products in storage facilities that don’t pass muster (either as they approach expiration or due to damage while being held at the facility) are separated and further inspected. If deemed unfit for use, they’re returned to the original supplier or disposed of properly. But naturally, prevention through systems like FIFO are often better than the alternative: shuffling once-perfectly edible food into a landfill somewhere because no one could remember how long it’s been sitting there.
Come to think of it, a little FIFO at home could go a long way too.
Development of new packaging technology
Lowering food waste and maximizing food safety isn’t just about the food itself, but the packaging left behind, whether or not the food gets to its intended consumer. We’ve seen advances like canning, pickling, vacuum sealing, pasteurization, bottling, among techniques help preserve our favorite edibles, but what about the skeletal remains of the tubs, containers, glass, metal, and plastic after we’re done?
In addition to better ways to store and ship our food, Dow Chemical is one forerunner and making the whole cycle more sustainable and eco-friendly, especially with their latest recyclable barrier films and pouches. Considered the first of their kind, Packaging Digest considers the new polyethylene (or PE) packaging to be “the Holy Grail” of packaging: “up until now, a brand using flexible packaging as a part of its sustainability commitment has had to choose between a low carbon footprint from the use of lightweight flexible materials or the ability to recycle the packaging.” Finally, Dow Chemical has find a way to merge the best of both worlds.
If that wasn’t enough, this new technology combined with the up-and-coming practice of high-pressure processing (HPP) — the vacuum-sealing of foods like salsa, luncheon meat, and guacamole that kills pathogens by “literally squeezing them to death” — will not only ensure the tastiness and quality of the foods contained within, but keep garbage related to used food packaging to a minimum, allowing users to drop-off used films and bags at grocery stores for later reprocessing.
Still, until we can start really chipping away at that 1.3 billion tons of wasted food we let sit and rot away every year, the best we can do is keep coming up with more innovative ways to tackle the problem and make sure we do our best to minimize our contribution to the pile. By understanding (and appreciating) all the effort that goes into bringing our meals from farm to table, we stand to solve a wide range of problems: world hunger, pollution and global warming, food costs and the cost of business surrounding it, and dated transportation infrastructure in developed and developing countries. All these fruits and vegetables are going the distance to land on your plate; will you go the distance to make sure it stays that way?