SUMMER SURVIVAL GUIDE: How India’s Cold Chain is Keeping its Cool

The cold chain industry faces escalating challenges as India braces for a scorching summer, with temperatures predicted to soar to new heights. In this story, we delve into the strategies and innovations to “beat the heat” and ensure efficient transportation of temperature-sensitive goods. From tackling challenges such as temperature fluctuations and power outages to embracing cutting-edge technologies like AI and robotics, companies are gearing up to fortify their cold chain networks. Join us as we explore how these proactive measures are essential for preserving product quality and reducing food waste during the scorching summer season.

According to a report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) titled ‘Sustainable Food Cold Chains: Opportunities , Challenges, and the Way Forward’, approximately 14% of the total food produced for human consumption is lost, while 17% is wasted. This amount of food waste could potentially feed around 1 billion people, which is particularly concerning given that 811 million people are currently experiencing hunger and 3 billion cannot afford a healthy diet. The primary cause of this wastage is the inadequate availability of effective refrigeration.

Speaking of India, the nation holds the distinction of being the world’s largest producer of milk, the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables, and a significant contributor to seafood, meat, and poultry production. However, approximately one-third of the country’s total food production is lost due to insufficient cold chain infrastructure.

Moreover, the UNEP report highlights that the food cold chain contributes approximately 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, stemming from both cold chain technologies and food loss and waste caused by inadequate refrigeration.

Thus, efforts to reduce food waste necessitate the implementation of efficient cold chain systems that maintain appropriate and uninterrupted temperature conditions throughout the entire supply chain, from harvest to consumption.

As delicate as it is, the transport of perishable goods requiring meticulous temperature control to ensure food safety and preserve quality is exacerbated in India’s scorching climate, where temperatures often exceed 40°C for flat and 30°C for hilly regions. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has already forecast longer and hotter-thannormal temperatures in various states across India for the summer of 2024, posing additional challenges to the integrity of the perishable cold chain.

This raises an important question: Is your cold chain prepared to withstand the heat?

As the summer months approach, companies are gearing up to perfect their cold chains to ensure the
safe and efficient transport of temperature-sensitive products. With the rising demand for fresh and
high-end goods globally, the cold chain industry is witnessing a shift towards innovative solutions
and technologies to overcome capacity constraints and maintain product integrity. One of the key
trends in cold chain management is the emphasis on quality and product sensitivity.

Highlighting the criticality of maintaining the right temperature for products, Mihir Mohanta, General Manager-Supply Chain, Mother Dairy Fruits and Vegetables Pvt. Ltd., shares, “Cold chain products category of frozen (-18 deg C) like ice cream and frozen snacks need 100% reliable cold chain. These are maintained at this temperature to make the microbial activities inactive. At a higher temperature, the product deteriorates both in quality and physical structure.”

With higher chances of spoilage and waste, maintaining the integrity of the cold chain becomes crucial. Thus, in preparation for the summer surge in demand for frozen and fresh food, companies are advised to plan meticulously, unlike the ‘good old days’ when just stacking up blocks of ice in a container was good enough to call it a day.

As companies prepare for the summer heat to optimize their cold chain management, it’s important to recognize and address the vulnerabilities, gaps, and challenges that pop up and create an all-hands-on-deck situation to ensure the efficiency of the cold chain in the summer heat.

In warmer seasons, particularly during the intense summers in India, maintaining the cold chain poses a multitude of challenges across the entire cold chain distribution process. The heightened temperatures significantly amplify the difficulties associated with preserving perishable goods, giving rise to numerous challenges, with the most prominent one being temperature fluctuations.

“The high temperatures outside can cause the temperature inside refrigerated vehicles or storage facilities to fluctuate or can result in equipment failure, which can affect the quality and safety of perishable goods,” shares Sanjay Sharma, COO, Coldman.

He goes on to explain that the influx of warm air can cause condensation, promoting mold growth and deteriorating packaging materials. To mitigate these effects, facilities may need to boost refrigeration capacity, raising energy usage and operational expenses. “Moreover, heightened equipment usage accelerates wear and tear, necessitating more frequent maintenance and potentially causing downtime for repairs,” he says.

 Thus, monitoring and controlling the temperature across the cold chain is essential.

Another big challenge comes in the form of power outages. The increased appetite for cool products heightens the demand for electricity or extreme weather conditions. This affects the cold chain, as refrigerated vehicles or storage facilities may not have the power to maintain the proper temperature. It is essential to have backup power sources or contingency plans in place to ensure that the cold chain is maintained during power outages.

“The prices of products like ice cream, cold drinks, and milk products go up exponentially during this season. To maintain the cold chain, the power requirements are very high, be it electricity or fossil fuel. The demand for power with respect to supplies goes high; therefore, there are frequent power cuts,” shared Mohanta, adding that the increased demand for reefer trucks also results in a freight hike and a long waiting time.

The remote cities, which do not have reverse transport, find it even more difficult to get reefer vehicles.

Experts contend that the Indian perishable goods market necessitates the deployment of 1.5 to 2 lakh reefer trucks to meet the demands of transporting perishable goods across the country.

This lack of reefers often puts additional strain on the cold chain, as more perishable goods need to be transported and stored, and result in a higher transportation cost, as one needs to invest heavily in getting the right equipment and fleet.

 “Creating an efficient cold chain infrastructure, takes up high investments. Therefore, more temperature-controlled product choice needs to be created to manage capacity utilization and smoothen seasonality factor,” shares Mohanta. Additionally, delays in transportation can occur during the summer season.

Manju Korah, VP-Operations, Snowman Logistics, speaking on the same lines, says “Logistical challenges arise due to infrastructure development activities causing road closures and limited vehicular movement, disrupting supply chains and delivery schedules. To address these challenges, adjustments in packaging materials and storage environments are necessary to withstand higher temperatures effectively. Additional insulation or cooling mechanisms further protect goods during transit, albeit at an increased cost, impacting profit margins.”

 Moreover, human error can also affect the cold chain. An oversight during monitoring and controlling the temperature of perishable goods can result in spoilage.

Incorrect documentation poses another challenges. Effective cold chain logistics in supply chain management require comprehensive awareness among all stakeholders regarding the products being transported and the specific conditions of transportation. Incorrect documentation can lead to significant issues if any stakeholder is uninformed. Therefore, meticulous documentation and adherence to proper standard operating procedures are essential for the successful operation of cold chain logistics.

Apart from this, standardization of practices in maintaining the cold chain is also an oversight that results in damage and spoilage.

Vishnu Sasidharan, VP and Business Head – Climate Technologies, Pluss Advanced Technologies Ltd., says, “What is crucial today is to focus on standardization of practices, energy efficiency, and increasing reliance on renewables to move away from fossil fuels. These three areas are the gaps today, as many of the innovative solutions, such as passive cooling systems for transportation, are implemented without holistic understanding. The larger picture of protecting the environment, which in turn will determine the supply chain competencies and sustainable business for the cold chain.”

The regulatory landscape for cold chain management is constantly evolving, with a growing emphasis on traceability, transparency, and sustainability. We can expect stricter temperature monitoring requirements, increased use of data loggers and blockchain technology for real-time tracking, and a push for eco-friendly refrigerants. These changes will necessitate investments in new technologies and training for personnel to ensure compliance. Dr. Sudha Singh, PhD Vegetable Science (Horticulture), Senior Manage, International Agriculture Consulting Group (IACG)  

Advancements in materials science and packaging technology are driving the development of eco-friendly, temperature-resistant packaging solutions for cold chain logistics. From biodegradable insulation materials to phase change materials that maintain stable temperatures for extended periods, these innovations help mitigate risks associated with temperature fluctuations during summer while reducing environmental impact, said Kartik Shah, CEO, Cold Rush

This is an abridged version of the Cover Story published in the May edition of the Logistics Insider Magazine. to read the complete story, click here.

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