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FSMA: New technology helps BCOs meet cold chain challenges

November 20, 2017 12:49 pm0 commentsViews: 5

0000075132The maritime community is slow to change. The old ways are the trusted ways. Yet, in a world of constant change, the maritime community is awash with opportunities. The transportation of refrigerated food supplies is predicted to grow 4 percent per year through 2020, but that growth comes with challenges. Food producers require more information and customized services from vessel owners. The regulatory environment has created additional risks and a need to invest in new technology. Beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) are also requiring more services with the expectation that costs should not materially change.

Although the industry is slowly adapting to new opportunities, the transportation of food is labor-intensive. The US Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires traceability and evidence that containers are capable of transporting food products within required temperature ranges. Refrigerated containers require constant monitoring and manual inspections. Temperature and maintenance logs require diligence from crewmembers, who have numerous responsibilities during a voyage. Any gaps in the log entries create uncertainty as to the quality of the food product and concerns about food safety. According to industry leaders, 59 percent of claims from the transportation of food shipments are the result of malfunctioning reefer units, poor documentation, or incorrect temperature set points.

The use of larger Panamax and neo-Panamax vessels brings additional challenges. Reefers create complicated stowage plans, generate heat, and need redundant sources of power in the event of an emergency. The exhaust from generators also can create temperature variations. The location of reefers on a vessel creates risks to crewmembers tasked with monitoring the containers and resolving problems. In addition, larger vessels often require longer transit times for certain cargo and traveling through multiple temperature zones. Consequently, the stowage plan needs to reflect the perishable nature of food supplies.

Cold chain opportunities have resulted in additional investments in technology. BCOs are requiring real-time information regarding their cargo. One solution is to affix machine-to-machine (M2M) and Internet of Things telemetry devices to containers, which enable containers to be digitally connected devices. The information is transmitted by satellite to various destinations to enable remote monitoring.

The containers are connected to a network on the ship to enable the crew to monitor the reefers and make any necessary adjustments without having to visit each container on a set schedule. Also, the containers can be equipped with sensors that monitor a variety of conditions in real time, from door opening and light intrusions for security purposes, to cargo temperature, humidity, and atmosphere, down to the pallet or carton level. The benefits are significant.

Yet the industry is still slow to adapt the M2M technology. Approximately 20 percent of the 1.5 million reefers are fitted with M2M telematics. Some hesitation in the industry resulted from unreliable and expensive communication networks. The dependability concerns have been addressed by dual network versions that can switch between global system for mobile and satellite communications to ensure uninterrupted tracking in remote areas. Additional sources of satellite communication have reduced the cost to vessel interests. The other significant concern was whether the cold supply chain providers could recover the cost of the technology through verifiable returns on investments. Furthermore, BCOs have been resistant to paying additional costs for the improved technology.

The final push to embrace smart and connected containers could be the implementation of the FSMA. The FSMA has pressured BCOs to document every step of the food supply chain. Produce must be traceable to its point of origin. And because FSMA focuses on food safety, ocean transporters must convince the food industry it can deliver food products in a reliable and safe manner.

Simply put, temperature controls and traceability will serve that objective. The use of smart sensors will enable the industry to integrate customized shipping requirements with remote monitoring. It enables immediate recognition of potential problems and affords the shippers and carriers an opportunity to mitigate losses before they occur.

But more information does not come without additional risks. The relevant regulations allow BCOs some latitude in developing guidelines regarding temperature, sanitation, equipment, and other variables needed to transport food safely. And any deviation from the guidelines will render food adulterated within the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Consequently, constant monitoring could provide evidence that the guidelines have been violated in ways that most likely do not render the food unsafe. Yet, under the regulations, the BCO has no option but to declare the goods adulterated.

The traceability afforded by technology will require smarter and more detailed guidelines from the BCO and recognition of the consequences of not complying with the guidelines.

The use of smart containers will continue the mode shift in the transport of food products. Although several industry leaders have announced innovative solutions over the past few years, the rest of the industry will need to make similar commitments to satisfy the needs of the BCOs in the current regulatory environment and to achieve desired market share.

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