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Navigating the complexity of cold chain logistics

Dec. 28, 2022
4 considerations when partnering with a 3PL to move temperature-controlled foods and other commodities

Most people don’t consider the daily convenience of freezers and refrigerators in their day-to-day lives. However, products that are kept cool and frozen must also be transported at precise temperatures whether it be less-than-truckload (LTL) frozen ecommerce with direct doorstep delivery or full truckloads (FTL) for retail destinations like grocery stores. Refrigerated, or temperature-controlled transportation, maintains cargo climate in transport through temperature-controlled shipping trailers and cold chain logistics plays a role in just about every product we consume.

Refrigerated freight and goods are part of a growing industry these days. In fact, according to Business Wire, it is projected to reach over $59 billion by 2025, up from $47.5 billion in 2020. With such a substantial market jump, many companies with perishable, frozen foods must focus on finding a cold chain logistics solution to get products to end customers in a safe and compliant fashion.

Luckily, outsourcing shipping operations to a third-party logistics (3PL) company saves time and money, and allows fleets to focus on other areas of the business, like marketing and product innovations. Here are four considerations when looking to invest in a 3PL partnership to move cold and frozen food products:

Find a 3PL with temperature-controlled experience

Experience is important when outsourcing any aspect of a business, and a third-party logistics partnership for temperature-sensitive shipping needs is no different.

Having specialty freight needs like temperature-controlled products and choosing the right 3PL provider can be an overwhelming process, but the right expert partner will not only take the anxiety and frustration out of shipping processes, they’ll also save money and time. Experienced 3PLs have the wisdom to overcome regularly occurring challenges and will embrace new technologies like:

  • Remote, real-time, off-site temperature monitoring
  • Smart packaging
  • Cold blankets
  • Special containment units like portable chiller and freezer boxes

Keep cost variations in mind

Anyone who has tried to move a refrigerated by themselves knows how difficult it can be due to the weight and design of thick, insulated walls and doors. However, this design is necessary to keep food cold and prevent waste through spoilage. Refrigerated trucks are also heavier and bulkier, leading to higher shipping costs at times.

Dry van freight can reach up to 110 degrees, so while they may be more efficient to move, the heavy refrigerated design elements are necessary in temperature-controlled freight. Reefer trailers are heavier than dry van, and therefore are naturally more expensive.

However, the weight of the equipment is not a major factor in increased costs for refrigerated equipment. Temperature-controlled trailers themselves are more expensive, so there is more capex required for a reefer fleet versus dry van trailers. As well, experienced reefer drivers require higher compensation as those types of shipments need an additional level of driver knowledge to limit the possibility of potential claims.

Because most refrigerated shipments are considered perishable, they have a higher probability of resulting in a claim in comparison to a dry shipment, and this can impact insurance costs for the carrier. The reefer unit also requires fuel to operate the temperature controls, which further adds to higher costs for reefer carriers versus dry carriers.

Peak season also greatly impacts the circumstances—namely the price—of temperature-controlled equipment. With the basic functions of supply and demand, spring and summer deliver a huge demand for cold chain logistical solutions. There is a limited number of reefer trailers in circulation, and peak seasonal demands increase rates and makes capacity swings more dramatic compared to dry freight.

Communication is key

It is essential to communicate to carriers the product temperature needs in advance, and in exquisite detail. For example, ice cream must be kept at extremely cold temperatures to prevent melting and spoilage. Some frozen loads are less prone to temperature sensitivity and can withstand slight temperature differentiations, and some products require continuous cooling while others can be maintained with a cycled reefer.

Successfully understanding the commodity entails knowing precisely how products need to be cooled, loaded, shipped, and delivered. Effective and clear communication on temperature necessities helps avoid severely costly shipping mistakes and ensures quality products to end customers.

A hyperfocus on food safety

Food is a commodity that automatically comes to mind when it comes to cold chain logistics. But other products like sensitive technology equipment, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, flowers and growing bulbs, candles, paint, hazardous materials, and even products that are sensitive to humidity changes are often shipped with reefer trailers.

However, not all products that require temperature-controlled solutions can be shipped together in the same container for a variety of reasons, including the potential of cross contamination and differing temperature needs.

Reefer trucks are not intended to cool products, but rather to help products retain constant temperatures. Regulations like the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the necessary yet strenuous oversight from entities like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) make moving frozen food products a tricky and precise process.

For example, the legislative extension of the FSMA is the 2016 Sanitary Transportation Rules. It details requirements like sanitation and temperature recording throughout transit for both human and animal food products and is intended to be a “modern, risk-based framework for food safety.” 

Partnering with a 3PL who prioritizes regulatory compliance to ensure safe products for both human and animal consumption is a safe business decision and a logistical relief for any shipper looking to transport temperature sensitive products.

Transportation and logistics is a rapidly evolving industry, and the embrace of new technologies is critical to success. From farm to freezer to table, the right third-party logistics provider will alleviate shipping stress by fulfilling every delivery need. 

Chris Bahr is vice president of brokerage operations for TA Services. His career has spanned roles ranging from brokerage, sales, pricing strategy, and business intelligence for the logistics industry’s most disruptive, fast-growth companies.          
About the Author

Chris Bahr | Vice president of brokerage operations

Chris Bahr is vice president of brokerage operations for TA Services. His career has spanned roles ranging from brokerage, sales, pricing strategy, and business intelligence for the logistics industry’s most disruptive, fast-growth companies. Bahr’s skillset and expertise help provide value-adding solutions and exceptional customer service to North American shippers.         

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