In the past year the Cold Chain has been in the spotlight. With the mRNA vaccines getting a lot of media coverage, people from all trades sought to understand why the logistics of transporting certain types of products at (sometimes very) low temperatures proved tricky.
The Cold Chain is not a new concept. It has been used for centuries to help transport fresh products, and with the emergence of freezing technologies it made it easier to transport frozen items and medicinal products across large distances. But what exactly is the Cold Chain? Why is it called that and why do we care?
We sought to address these issues in this month’s #DidYouKnow piece:
What exactly is the Cold Chain?
The Cold Chain refers to the management of products that need to transported at stable temperatures throughout the supply chain. Though not limited to pharmaceutical supplies, it has been in the spotlight over the past two years due to the risks associated with the pandemic-related vaccines potentially deteriorating during transport that can’t support the extremely low temperatures needed to maintain their integrity.
There are four main groups of products that fall under the Cold Chain systems:
What are the elements of a Cold Chain?
At the root of it, the Cold Chain is a series of logistic management steps taken to protect the integrity and quality of certain types of perishable products. These steps range in product preparation, storage and the transport itself.
The main elements are:
- Storage – the transport begins with the storage of the products in a refrigerated facility. These tend to be equipped with refrigerated containers, chillers, cold boxes, cold rooms, and blast freezers, among other things
- Packaging – The products have lower risks of contamination if they are properly packaged. This also increases the energy efficiency throughout the whole chain. To ensure proper packaging, refrigerants are used, which include dry ice, gel packs, phase change materials, Styrofoam or gel bricks.
- Monitoring – Careful monitoring of the conditions during all steps of the cold chain is essential. Cold Chain managers can monitor things like temperatures and environmental parameters. Nowadays the Internet of Things is being used to help in these processes, and digital software that allow for the management of transport are integral to monitoring the data collected by the sensors stationed throughout the supply chain.
- Delivery – The final step of the Cold Chain is the delivery of the product – and this step may or may not involve the provision of temperature-controlled equipment by the transport operators. This depends on the preferences of the buyers and end-users.
The Cold Chain has a set of standardised temperature ranges that helps transport operators determine which methods are most appropriate for the transport of their products.
- Banana – temperatures range between 12 degrees to 14 degrees Celcius
- Pharmaceutical – temperatures range between 2 and 8 degrees Celcius
- Chill – temperatures range between 2 and 4 degrees Celcius
- Frozen – temperatures range between -10 and -20 degrees Celcius
- Deep frozen – temperatures range between -25 and -30 degrees Celcius
- Ultra low – temperatures fall below -70 degrees Celcius
What kinds of temperature controls are we talking about?
In general the temperature controlled supply chains refer to cold temperatures – which is where the term “the cold chain” comes from. Typically the products transported along these supply chains need to be kept under stable temperatures that range from 2 degrees Celcius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) to negative 70 degrees Celcius (negative 158 degrees Fahrenheit).
What are the consequences of improper cold chain management?
The Cold Chain is very important in maintaining the functionality of today’s supply chains. Failure to do so could result in discolouring, bruising and bacterial growth, as well as product degradation. All of those could then have devastating impacts on public health, as well as affect the satisfaction of the end-users (which would then drive greater demand for the products).
What industries rely on the Cold Chain?
The main industries that need to use temperature controlled supply chains are:
- Food and beverage
- Oil and gas
The European Union has come up with a set of guidelines on manufacturing and distribution practices of all products. These were designed to ensure both the safety and the quality of the products transported, and include specifications that would need to be applied to storage areas and transport equipment. For more information you can check out the EU Good Manufactoring Practices.
Want to know more? Check out these additional resources:
- The EU Guide to Good Manufacturing Practice, Annex 13