Food Waste in America's Supply Chain

Posted by Harriet Mills on Jul 23, 2020 9:42:18 AM

food waste-blog


Ready to hear some crazy statistics about America's food in the supply chain? Before I divulge any numbers, let's look at the big picture concerning the food we ship in this country.


The food we grow in the United States combined with the food we import is more than enough to sustain the population amply. That's the good news. The bad news is there are still more than 37 million starving people in the U.S., reports Feeding America—but the real kicker? Of all the food waste in this country, up to 40 percent occurs in the supply chain, according to the USDA's website. Do we have any control over this astronomical percentage? Well, let's just say we can do better.


It is unrealistic to eliminate all food waste, but there are many ways to improve this alarming statistic concerning the transport of perishable freight. One of our first steps toward progress in this country began almost a decade ago with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA), which was signed into law on January 4, 2011. It wasn't until 2016, however, that the first stages of implementation were finalized and enforced. If you are unfamiliar with the FSMA mandate, they are a set of laws aimed at avoiding foodborne illnesses instead of responding to them. Get our whitepaper to learn more. So why are there still issues?


Documentation: Your Essential Safety Net for Cold Freight Shipping




Shipping refrigerated and frozen food is tricky business, and it is important to learn all you can about the cold supply chain to avoid food waste, contamination, and unnecessary cargo claims. Knowledge is power!


Here are a few important topics you can brush up on to become an expert in temp-controlled shipping:

  • Temperature-monitoring and location tracking
  • Freight preparation (from palletizing to packaging)
  • The use of slip sheets and proper ventilation
  • Pre-cooling of trailers
  • Humidity's role
  • Loading best-practices
  • Pulping and documenting
  • Strict adherence to checklists and standard operating procedures (SOPs)

Even with SOPs, best practices, and FMSA in place, there are still many misconceptions about cold LTL and refrigerated truckload shipping practices, resulting in billions of dollars in lost product. In 2010, the USDA reported annual losses of approximately 133 billion pounds of food, costing $161 billion in food waste. If 40 percent of that is attributable to the supply chain, well, you can do the math.  




And with that much spoilage going on, it is likely that just as much gets through the system and winds up in grocery stores and fast-food chains, ultimately making it into consumers' hands. According to the CDC, more than 48 million people get sick every year from contaminated food, citing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.




A reefer unit malfunction is one of the most common problems in the cold chain. Failures on the road can create a multitude of problems. Heading issues off at the pass is always the best strategy. It all starts with the truck and driver. Are the carriers adequately vetted, and is the equipment in tip-top shape? If you are using a 3PL, like Choptank Transport, ask about the broker's vetting process for their carriers before awarding them a shipment. Stringent screening should be their standard protocol to assure the safety of every load.


Of course, it's a bonus if you have a driver who is familiar with their reefer unit and knows what can go wrong and how to fix minor problems if necessary. What exactly can break down on a reefer unit? Lots of things.


  • Condenser Failures: When a condenser has issues, it can be a disaster and undoubtedly affect the integrity of the shipment. Tubes, clamps, coils, and bolts in the condenser are all subject to corrosion or damage and may require replacement.


  • Air Chute Damage: Something as simple as a damaged air chute, for example, can happen when the product (usually produce) is brought onto a trailer, causing rips and tears that cause inconsistent airflow throughout the cargo space.


  • Leaky Fluids: A visual inspection of the reefer unit should be part of the daily checklist. Any leak, even a small one, can affect temperature maintenance.


  • Sensor Malfunction: Sensors also should be checked every time the reefer unit is serviced. A bad sensor can deliver misleading readings, and the driver may not even notice it until it conflicts with a temp-recorder on board.


  • Compromised Door Seals: Drivers should check the door seals with every shipment. Old corroded hinges or damaged seals can allow outside air in, changing the internal ambient temperature. It can be especially problematic during the summer months when outside temperatures can be drastically different than the specified inside temperatures for the shipment.

Mixed Loads


Dairy, Meat, Poultry, and Frozen: Each commodity has an ideal temperature for transport. Mixing shipments with varying temperature specifications can create big problems with spoilage and freight claims. 


The ideal temperature for transporting meat products to avoid harmful bacteria growth is 40°F or under. Milk falls into a similar category; however, according to a fact sheet from Clemson University's College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, "Bacteria in milk will grow minimally below 45°F. However, temperatures well below 40°F are necessary to protect the milk's quality." So, allowing the internal temperature of a reefer unit to rise to 45°F when shipping milk isn't adequate. (And just an interesting sidebar about milk that most people don't know. According to this fact sheet, "Milk can be stored frozen at 0 °F for up to three months and will be safe to drink if it is thawed in the refrigerator, although it does not retain its smooth texture.")


Frozen seafood or ice cream, on the other hand, needs to transported at -10°F to 0 degrees, or else you can expect a disastrous meltdown (by both the shipper and the product)!


Plants and Nursery: Most nursery freight should not travel above 33°F, and temperatures that fluctuate even a few degrees can damage plants, wilt leaves, and quickly kill flowers.


Produce: When people talk about cold chain shipping, the first thing that comes to mind is produce. Apples, grapes and leafy greens need to stay between 32°F-36°F while potatoes and green beans can be a transported at slightly warmer temps, at 40°F-45°F. Bananas, cucumbers, and melons cannot get too cold, or they will quickly spoil. They require temperatures between 45°F-50°F. Knowing your freight's tolerance is the name of the game.


Myths vs. Facts


Did you know that a reefer truck is not designed to bring a product's temperature down to a certain threshold but instead is only meant to maintain a specific temperature range? A  shipment of watermelon harvested directly out of a hot field and then loaded onto a refrigerated truck will display uneven pulp readings upon arrival at its destination. 


Another misconception is that if you leave a reefer unit running while unloading cargo, it will help keep the goods on the truck cold. Not true! The open doors actually allow warm, humid air to fill the space while the cold, dry air is pushed out the back. And, by leaving the reefer unit running, it can cause the unit to go into defrost mode too quickly, further damaging the product on board.


By knowing the facts and dispelling the myths we can start eliminating the mistakes that frequently accompany perishable food shipping and compromise our food supply.


Choptank Transport is offering a free webinar on August 20, 2020, "Refrigerated Shipping – Myths vs. Facts," with a panel of industry experts who will reveal shippers' biggest misconceptions about cold chain shipping. Learn more and sign up today


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Tags: Shipper News, Cold LTL, refrigerated freight services, frozen freight shipping, Shipping Truckload, nursery freight