BlogFood supply chain challenges

If you’re in the grocery business you know that margins are tight and you make your money on volume. If you’re a retailer, any disruption to your production or supply chain that delays shipment or renders food unfit to be sold will impact your profit margin. If you’re a manufacturer, a disruption can mean that you lose the money you spent to produce, package, and transport your food product, with no way to recoup the investment.

Unfortunately, there are many ways the food supply chain can be disrupted. Challenges range from natural disasters that delay shipments to accidents in the warehouse that interrupt operations to operational mistakes that cause temperature control to lapse and food to become unsafe. Food supply chain challenges like these interfere with getting food to market quickly and without incident, but they’re not insurmountable. Let’s consider some ways these challenges arise and how to reduce the likelihood they will affect your supply chain.

Accidents and Interruptions Are Major Food Supply Chain Challenges

An accident causes a food supply chain challengeThe biggest causes of monetary loss in the food supply chain are disasters like hurricanes, fires, and floods. There is relatively little a logistics coordinator or manager can do to ward off losses from disasters like these except have a plan to secure warehouses and vehicles against disaster scenarios and ensure the company has comprehensive insurance. The same is not true of other food supply chain challenges like:

  • Improper Handling: A lack of attention can cause food to be stored at improper temperatures or can cause the recording of temperatures to lapse. Whether the food is spoiled or not, lack of proper records is cause to discard the product.
  • Fraud: The food supply chain is complex and interconnected, with meats, produce, dairy, eggs, and more changing hands several times before they arrive for distribution. This opens up the possibility of adulteration and the substitution of inferior ingredients, as the 2013 European horsemeat scandal illustrates.
  • Debris: In the warehouse, trash can get caught in machinery, and large debris under a wheel can even cause a forklift to tilt and lose a load. This can cause the loss of entire load-level units of product and may require expensive maintenance.
  • Employee Injury: Sharp debris like splinters and loose nails can cut and puncture flesh, taking employees out of the labor pool for days or longer. Another potential source of injury is injured backs and crushed toes. These may occur when workers handle heavy equipment like pallets manually.
  • Platform Failure: Load-level equipment failure in which the pallet actually fails under strain can also cause injury, equipment damage, and the loss of product, and it often requires workers to temporarily halt logistic work until it is corrected.

In order to prevent these issues in the warehouse, logistics coordinators at every level should identify the weak spots in their food supply chains and focus on building practices into the process to eliminate them. A few of these solutions are:

  1. Ensuring that employees are properly trained to log temperatures and that the logging process is intuitive, simple to follow, and employees understand the importance of compliance.
  2. Implementing detailed tracking and tracing at the load level in order to reduce the opportunity for fraud.
  3. Switching to a lighter weight and more durable shipping platform like a plastic pallet to eliminate wood debris and employee injury from handling heavy wood platforms.

Of course, these are not the only food supply chain challenges. Contamination of the product is a hugely important issue that can have enormous consequences for companies that must deal with the fallout from putting unsafe food products on the market.

Sources of Foodborne Illness in the Supply Chain

The origin of biological contamination in the food supply chain can range from the farm to transportation vehicles to processing centers to exposure of processed food during storage and shipping. A few of the most common sources are:

  • Wild Animals: Multiple E. coli outbreaks have been linked to wild animal feces in fields where produce is grown. Rodents and other vermin that invade food prep and storage areas can also be a source of bacteria
  • Domestic Animals: Chickens are often a source of salmonella, and cows and pigs commonly have E. coli bacteria in their excrement, which can contaminate beef and pork during slaughter. While cooking kills these bacteria, cross contamination with foods that are served raw–such as produce–remains a concern.
  • Groundwater: Water that is contaminated with harmful bacteria can contaminate produce when it is used to irrigate fields or in the processing of produce or other foods.
  • Personnel: Employees engaged in food processing and handling may contaminate food with bacteria when they fail to follow proper protocols like washing their hands or wearing clean clothing.
  • Vehicles and Equipment: Bacteria and other contaminants from one shipment can remain on loading equipment and in transportation vehicles where they can contaminate other loads.

Preventing the biological contamination of food is all about closing off the vectors that expose food to illness-causing bacteria. The best way to close these vectors is to adopt procedures that keep food handling, processing, and storage areas free of contaminants. A few solutions are:

  1. Fencing in fields to prevent animals from being able to eat crops and defecate in the growing areas.
  2. Keeping domestic livestock separated from produce growing areas by a large margin. Exact distances are set by local regulatory agencies and should be followed or exceeded.
  3. Training employees in the proper procedures for food handling and enforcing these procedures to ensure food safety.
  4. Using vehicles and equipment that are easy to clean to clean and sanitize, and cleaning them regularly.

Some of these solutions are easier to implement than others. Fresh food logistics managers have relatively little control over the layout of the farms that supply their food supply chain, for instance. However, logistics coordinators can implement and enforce proper employee food handling procedures. They can also ensure the use of easy-to-clean transportation and loading equipment. This step alone can help mitigate the risk of food supply chain variables that logistics workers have no control over.

Plastic Pallets Mitigate Food Supply Chain Challenges

Plastic pallets ease supply chain challengesPlastic pallets are a good example of better equipment that can mitigate food supply chain management challenges. They are a far more rugged alternative to wood pallets, capable of supporting 30,000 pounds of static load and 5,000 pounds of evenly distributed dynamic load (a typical wood pallet can support only a 2,000-pound dynamic load). The durability of a plastic pallet means that it isn’t prone to breaking or splintering, freeing the food supply chain from the challenges of debris and pallet failure.

When a plastic pallet is sanitized with detergents, it is truly clean, not hiding a reservoir of bacteria beneath the surface.

High-quality plastic pallets are equipped with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Global Returnable Asset Identifier (GRAI) numbers, which opens up the option for properly equipped supply chains to track pallets and their loads by scanning barcodes or using an RFID transceiver. While not on its own a fraud prevention method, widespread and diligent implementation would allow cases of fraud to be tracked back to the source much more quickly, and would also assist with recalls of contaminated food.

Perhaps the most important advantage of a plastic pallet in the food supply chain is in its ability to be easily sanitized. Unlike wood, a plastic pallet’s surface is nonporous and does not allow microorganisms to penetrate the material. When a plastic pallet is sanitized with detergents, it is truly clean, not hiding a reservoir of bacteria beneath the surface. This allows the reuse of plastic pallets without fears of cross contamination, which removes one of the greatest challenges for produce, meat, and egg industries. With their ability to solve multiple critical supply chain challenges in the food industry, plastic pallets are the only sensible shipping platform for food transport and storage.

To solve your food supply chain challenges with the durable, sanitary, and RFID-equipped iGPS plastic pallet, give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at switch@igps.net, or visit our contact page.