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The Cold Chain Management Process

October 20, 2022

November 12, 2022

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x min read

The heat is on for shipping and logistics managers tasked with cold chain management like never before.

Overcoming the challenges inherent with any supply chain — increasing customer demand and the never-ending push from the C-suite to drive down costs and increase efficiency despite resource and capacity constraints — is enough to test anyone’s mettle. As someone entrusted with packing and distributing temperature-sensitive foods and medicines the world depends on, you face even more pressure due to stringent temperature requirements, evolving regulations, and increasing scrutiny from regulatory agencies.

The global cold chain logistics market began climbing steadily in recent years to meet the world’s growing demand for fresh foods and medicines and is expected to top $410 billion annually by 2028 — a 65% increase since the onset of the pandemic. Meeting this need for transporting perishable goods safely and efficiently requires consistent investment in tracking technology and cold chain infrastructure. Strategic partnerships can play an integral part in cold chain management to help maximize that investment. 

This article and infographic look closer at the process of cold chain management and the processes involved in ensuring efficient operations in industries that rely heavily on an uninterrupted cold chain. 

What is Cold Chain Management?

Cold chain management, as the name suggests, involves overseeing supply chain operations that preserve and protect temperature-sensitive food items and medical products. As a leader in this position, you need to be aware of the shipping environment, package design, and shipment details—such as the length of trip and the acceptable temperature range for each product. Cold chain management also includes documentation review, training, transparent communication, and end-to-end visibility that provides insights and keeps you in control throughout the supply chain journey.

Why Is Cold Chain Management Important?

First and foremost, cold chain management and logistics help protect the safety, integrity, and quality of perishable foods and temperature-sensitive medical products. No retailer in their right mind would accept a load of fresh organic blueberries that are frostbitten or a shipment of chicken that arrives at room temperature. In-transit temperature variations can also ruin the efficacy of medicines. Robust cold chain logistics also reduce waste and ensure supply chain efficiency. Delivering time-sensitive products on time, in full, and of the highest quality drives customer satisfaction to new heights. 

Achieving those goals requires strong leadership, collaborative partnerships, a documented cold chain process, and robust temperature-tracking technologies. Data from cloud-based loggers and temperature trackers assure stakeholders of the latest shipment status—and provides a documented audit trail that helps demonstrate uninterrupted cold chain custody to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and other global regulatory agencies. 

The Cold Chain Management Process

Ensuring on-time, in-full deliveries of temperature-sensitive products requires a finely-tuned, streamlined process that promotes safety, efficiency, and quality—from beginning to end. From a micro perspective, this includes storage, packaging, tracking, transportation, product management, delivery, and, in some cases, customs clearance.

Storage

Even before the first-mile journey begins, temperature-sensitive products and perishable foods must be stored in cold storage at the origin. In some cases, cold rooms, chillers, and freezers will suffice. Vaccines and biomedicals may require special medical refrigerators or freezers. Cold chain storage equipment and facilities must be calibrated and monitored to ensure proper temperature ranges.

Packaging

Warehouse personnel must package products properly to ensure they can be transported long distances without damaging the appearance, flavor, or quality. This cold packaging can take many forms: from envelopes and insulated shippers to cold chain parcels and pallet systems that use a combination of refrigerant bricks, gel packs, and gel bottles.

Tracking

To maintain oversight of perishable shipments once they leave temperature-controlled storage, savvy logistics professionals use either real-time location and condition trackers or modern temperature loggers applied at the shipment or container level. Tracker data is automatically uploaded to the cloud and users receive real-time alerts of excursions; modern temperature loggers are scanned using a mobile app to upload the data to the cloud and analyze it for excursions.

Transportation

Shippers have various specialized transportation options for moving temperature-sensitive goods and products around the globe. Refrigerated vehicles (“reefers”) and reefer containers are commonly used for ground transportation. Effective cold chain management includes shippers verifying that the reefer temperatures match the requirements listed on the bill of lading.

Customs Clearance

Cross-border shipments bring customs clearance into play. Whether it’s a load of avocados from Mexico bound for the U.S. or COVID vaccines for global distribution, shippers must ensure customs paperwork is complete and accurate to ensure quick and efficient deliveries. Failure to do so can result in delays, increasing the risk of spoilage, product loss, or additional expenses. 

Product Management

In addition to the specialized packaging mentioned above, cold chain management also includes ensuring that warehouse workers are fully trained in best practices for handling both temperature-sensitive products and the equipment used to load/unload shipments. Doing so will help eliminate the risk of cross-contamination and limit out-of-refrigeration time. 

Delivery

Whether going across town, coast to coast, or around the world, the ultimate goal is to complete deliveries of temperature-sensitive products on time and in full. Modern temperature loggers and trackers stay with the products and provide visibility through final delivery—creating an audit trail that confirms cold chain custody remained intact throughout the supply chain journey.

What Industries Focus on Cold Chain Management?

All industries seek quality control, timeliness, and operational consistency in their supply chains. However, for the sectors relying on cold chain management, failure to achieve those goals results in consequences far more dire than a hit to a company’s bottom line or reputation. For those operating in the Food & Beverage, Pharmaceutical, and Life Sciences industries, failing to deliver quality products on time and in full results in tremendous waste—and could potentially put lives at risk.

Food & Beverages: Feeding the World’s Appetite for All Things Fresh

Companies that ship perishable commodities such as meat, dairy products, fresh produce, or frozen products rely on temperature loggers to maintain cold chain custody from the point of origin to final-mile delivery. Any temperature excursion outside of product-specific ranges might make the load unsellable. As much as 75% of the 1.6 million tons of wasted food globally can be attributed to cold chain failures during production and distribution. Worse still, unsafe food that finds its way into consumers’ hands causes 600 million cases of foodborne diseases and 420,000 deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.

Pharmaceutical: Safeguarding Health with Medicines & Vaccines

Pharmaceutical is another industry plagued by waste: an estimated $37 billion in medicines are lost every year due to failures in cold chain logistics alone, according to the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science. Using trackers with a dry ice or cryogenic probe to monitor temperature safeguards Pfizer BioNTech COVID vaccines (transported at minus-70°C) and other vaccines, insulin, and oncology therapeutics usually require 2-8°C, 15°C to 25°C or minus-20°C or minus-40°C. The right visibility solution can mean the difference in millions of dollars in losses and a safe delivery. Here is a case study that illustrates both outcomes.

Life Sciences: Research & Development that Impacts Lives

The Life Sciences industry expands beyond pharmaceuticals to include the research and development of cell and gene therapies, biotechnology-based foods and medicines, medical devices, biomedical technologies, nutraceuticals (nutritional supplements, vitamins, etc.), and cosmeceuticals (cosmetics that have or claim to have medicinal properties). Many of these products contain active pharmaceutical ingredients that must be stored at specific temperature ranges. An excursion beyond those limits could ruin the quality of those products.

Without a robust cold chain management structure, these sectors will struggle due to errors and delays, poor accountability, and decreased regulatory compliance — all of which could result in lost revenue, or an inability to protect consumers.

Challenges in Cold Supply Chain Management

Any supply chain encounters numerous challenges, but cold storage management requires diligence in guarding against temperature excursions that could carry severe safety or financial consequences. Following are some common cold chain challenges: 

  • Excessive heat exposure: Each temperature-sensitive product becomes vulnerable to degradation when removed from a refrigerator or freezer unit. Loading, unloading, and product transfers in a cross-docking or other freight consolidation situation often leave such products at risk for exposure to higher temperatures. Exceeding the maximum time out of refrigeration can ruin products.
  • Damaged products: Improper handling during loading or unloading can lead to damaged products, but so can the trip itself. For example, vials of vaccines not correctly packaged are susceptible to breakage during shock events and other movements while in transit. 
  • Faulty equipment: Forklifts can inadvertently damage freezer doors during loading and unloading, rendering them unable to seal properly and maintain acceptable temperature ranges. 
  • Excessive condensation: Much like an ice-cold pitcher of lemonade sitting on a picnic table under the hot summer sun generates moisture, condensation can form on temperature-controlled products moved from one temperature to another too often or too quickly. In such cases, product adulteration can create a health risk for consumers.
  • Mold and mildew in the cooling units: A broken seal on refrigeration equipment or freezer could lead to mismanaged temperatures, resulting in microbial contamination of the goods inside.

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