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Chilling on the road to sustainability

19 April 2024

Jon Trembley discusses the important role that refrigeration and chilling can play in food producers achieving their decarbonisation goals.

As the UK’s largest manufacturing industry, it’s no secret that the food and drink sector is under pressure to improve the sustainability of its operations. But what role does refrigeration and chilling have to play? 

The short answer is a lot – Poor temperature control accelerates the deterioration of food quality and significantly increases food waste. Indeed, such is the scale of the problem that in 2017 the UN reported emissions from food loss and waste due to a lack of refrigeration totalled an estimated 1 gigaton of CO2 equivalent. Add inefficiency in resource and energy use into the mix and the reality is that the food cold chain is responsible for around 4% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to figures from Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. It’s a sobering thought. 

According to the United Nations, efficient deployment of sustainable food cold chains worldwide is central to reducing emissions, improving climate resilience, and supporting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But, when it comes to effective temperature management, there are challenges to overcome, relating to processing, handling, and data transparency. 

Foods prepared by cook-chill technologies require fast chilling to stop harmful bacteria from growing and to increase their shelf-life without loss of the nutritional and organoleptic value. With products such as cooked meals or meats, rapid cryogenic chilling works best. It enhances food safety by reducing the time that food spends in the ‘danger section’ between +8°C and +68°C where bacterial growth is fastest. This means that food can be stored for longer periods without danger of spoilage, extending shelf life and decreasing food waste.

Cryogenically chilled products can reach substantially colder temperatures within a much shorter amount of time than those that are mechanically chilled. This is important as the faster this type of product is cooled, the lower the risk of microbiological spoilage and food waste – and let’s not forget, The Energy Saving Trust says that food waste is responsible for around 8 – 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Part of the picture
But cooling the product on the production line is only part of the picture – it also needs to get to its end destination. Maintaining the correct storage temperature during transit is essential in avoiding unnecessary food waste.

With changing environmental conditions as a result of global warming, this challenge is only likely to intensify. While the product may be produced with sustainability and efficiency in mind, control in the further transportation and distribution downstream is vital to preserve the safety and quality of refrigerated foods and comply with legislative directives. To preserve safety in chilled foods there are prescribed maximum temperatures. The Agreement on the International Carriage of Perishable Foodstuffs specifies maxima for transportation: 7°C for meats; 6°C for meat products and butter; 4°C for poultry, milk & dairy products; and 2°C for fish. Cryogenic chilling can cool quicker and below the prescribed temperatures. This therefore allows more flexibility during transport and storage

The reality is that a much more integrated, end to end approach is needed so that producers can monitor and control the temperature of produce from farm to factory, and factory to distributer and consumer. Access to robust data and insight is, of course, key. 

The role of data
Data has a critical role to play in increasing efficiency and sustainability and we’re seeing a real growth in customers wanting to capture and interrogate real-time data. 

Real time data monitoring on cold chain performance has the potential to inform both environmental and business decisions. Remote monitoring technology for data collection has seen great success in the freezing sector, particularly with (monitoring) freezing process parameters. There is potential for the same or similar systems to be implemented in the cold chain.

As an industry, we are making great strides forward in tackling issues such as the incorrect and over use of plastic packaging, and food waste, but there is more that can, and must, be done. The processes and technologies are there to work to improve the food cold chain and ensure far greater temperature monitoring, control, and ultimately less food waste. We now need to focus across the supply chain to close the loop, encourage greater uptake, and work together to generate a cleaner future.

Jon Trembley is Technology Manager – Cryogenic applications at Air Products.

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