A little while ago, the Pundit picked up a new sponsor by the name of Escort Data Loggers. This company provides a temperature monitoring device that, in real time, keeps track of temperatures in a truck, a cold storage or other facility or location.
Coincidentally, Bryan Silbermann of the Produce Marketing Association — who I work with each month to write a column called Research Perspectives/Comments & Analysis in PRODUCE BUSINESS — wrote a column regarding transportation and posed the question of why the industry was still relying on temperature recording devices as opposed to utilizing temperature monitoring.
With temperature recording devices, after the truck unloads, one can see if the truck maintained the proper temperature and thus assign blame for a bad delivery. In his piece, Bryan asks this sensible question:
Liability for temperature abuse may be critical in assigning responsibility but does nothing to prevent the load from being spoiled. Why not use interactive technology to solve a problem rather than assign blame?
It is an interesting point. The article will be in the October issue of PRODUCE BUSINESS. If you don’t have a subscription, you can purchase one here, pick up a copy of this issue at the PMA convention in San Diego at PRODUCE BUSINESS Booth #4341 or request a sample copy here.
As I look at our new sponsor (you can click on the logo of any sponsor to get to their web site or to an ad they’ve posted) and I think about Bryan’s comments, I connect those two things to both the E. coli outbreak on spinach, which we have dealt with here and to the botulism problem with Bolthouse carrot juice, which we have referenced here.
At least on fresh-cut/value-added products, the connection between temperature monitoring and food safety points to a change in the nature of good delivery standards.
I grew up in the business, and we never shipped a box without a “Ryan” — referring to a Ryan-brand temperature recording device. When the shipment arrived, the “Ryan” was opened and glanced at. But the key was not the Ryan; the key was the condition of the product.
If the product arrived in good condition, it didn’t really matter if the temperature hadn’t been perfect. It was a sort of a “no harm, no foul” situation. We always kept the tape and put it in the file we kept on each load, just in case we sold the load and got returns because the product collapsed, possibly indicating some damage caused by temperature fluctuations.
But we sold things quickly and so did our customers, so if the product arrived in good condition, it was usually sold and never heard about again and that was it.
But the very first piece we wrote on the spinach crisis was built around a letter written to the Pundit by Al Siger of Consumers Produce, talking about the vulnerability of fresh-cut products. You can read it here. And these pieces we wrote on the botulism and carrot juice issue dealt with the importance of maintaining the cold chain. You can read it here.
The vulnerability of fresh cut products and other products such as carrot juice combines with our awareness of the dangers of breaking the cold chain to change the very definition of good delivery standards.
Even if the product looks perfect, the very fact that cold chain fluctuation occurred means that bacteria was given a chance to grow. This means that if the cold chain was broken, either bacterial counts need to be done at the receiver end to ensure the product meets acceptable levels or the product is inherently unacceptable for sale.
Sophisticated players have long known that, for certain purposes, the temperature recording device told a tale about the suitability of the product. For example, my family produce business, based in New York, worked with Bud Antle in California and Robert Zwartkruis in Europe to ship the first large-scale exports of California iceberg lettuce to Europe. The product was shipped to New York, where it was inspected, then transported via sea to Europe.
One of the things we learned was that even though the product looked perfect in New York, if the product at any time had exceeded a certain temperature from California to New York, it would not make a good delivery in Europe. We didn’t know it then, but now I would say that this was due to bacterial growth.
That affected good delivery, but not safety. If the produce arrived rotten, nobody would eat it.
With the development of modified atmosphere packaging, the shelf life of the produce now exceeds the amount of time it would take for bacteria to reproduce to a dangerous level.
This means that what is acceptable as good delivery must change. Standards must be established so that product in acceptable physical condition must still either be tested or rejected if the cold chain was broken beyond set parameters.
Obviously this would enormously raise the cost of faulty temperature control in trucks. So the rule should be that no fresh-cuts, carrot juice or other vulnerable product should ever be shipped without a real-time temperature monitoring device that can instantly send a message to the trucker that there is a problem so quick action can be taken to minimize the problem.
Our new sponsor, Escort Data Loggers, manufactures units that do this. My old supplier Ryan, as well as its competitor, Cox, was bought by Sensitech, and Sensitech was bought by United Technologies. Today, in addition to temperature recorders, they too are making temperature monitoring devices. I’m sure there are others out there each with their own set of features and benefits.
The question is whether the industry is willing to see the food safety disasters of today as an opportunity to use technology to make foods safer. Here is a clear opportunity to do so.