Welcome to the dynamic, exciting world of perishable foods! This is one of the most specialised product categories in the fast moving consumer goods (“FMCG”) industry today. In fact, we could actually talk about the perishable foods industry – as it includes any business that manufactures, distributes, prepares and sells fresh, frozen, or chilled foods to final consumers. Examples or fresh foods include: fruit and vegetables, baked goods, freshly cooked meals, and so on. Frozen foods are typically chicken, fish and other meat products, and some dairy products like ice cream. Chilled foods include processed foods like bacon, cold meats, cheeses, yoghurts, fresh milk, and so on.
As the name indicates, perishable foods do not last very long; and so, their shelf life is the shortest of all food products in a retail store. ‘Shelf life’ basically means; how long a product will last on a shelf in a store, before it “goes off” – i.e. it expires or spoils – meaning, it can no longer be safely offered for sale to people or be consumed anymore. Indeed, once a perishable food product has spoiled, it can become contaminated (poisonous) – and can cause severe illness (even death) to those unfortunate people who consume it.
Figure 1 shows some examples of the most popular types of perishable foods.
Figure 1: Popular types of Perishable Foods
So, to ensure we keep perishable food in their best possible condition (thereby extending its shelf-life) we (as food service workers and merchandisers) must use two proven, well-known techniques. These are:
(1) The Cold chain; and (2) Temperature control. Let’s take a closer look at each.
(1) What is the Cold Chain?
“A cold chain is a temperature-controlled supply chain. An unbroken cold chain is an uninterrupted series of storage and distribution activities which maintain a given temperature range. It is used to help extend and ensure the shelf life of perishable products such as fresh agricultural goods, seafood, frozen food, photographic film, chemicals and pharmaceutical products and medicines” (Wikipedia, 2015).
Another definition of the cold chain is:
“The seamless movement of fresh, chilled or frozen products, from the production area to the market, through various storage and transport mediums, without any change in the optimum storage temperature and relative humidity" (PPECB.com, 2015).
As we can see in both the above definitions of a cold chain, we work with perishable products (specifically, fresh, chilled and frozen foods). We also work within a temperature-controlled supply chain. But, what do we mean by the term, supply chain?
A supply chain can be seen as an “entire network of entities, directly or indirectly interlinked and interdependent in serving the same consumer or customer. It consists of vendors (like farmers) that supply raw (food) material, producers who convert raw material into products, warehouses that store, distribution centres that deliver to the retailers, and retailers who bring the product to the ultimate (end) user” (Business Dictionary, 2015).
Remember: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In other words, we should never “break” the cold chain. But where does this cold chain start, and where does it end?
The cold chain starts right at the production phase of the perishable food product (such as a farm or factory), but as far as food service retailers and their employees are concerned, the cold chain starts once we receive a perishable foods delivery and we are satisfied that it meets all the criteria (standards) for quality and safety. One way to ensure quality and safety, is to check the “Sell-By / Best Before” dates on the product’s packaging and to make sure that all items have an acceptable shelf-life left. For instance, if a food item expires on 3 November, we should NOT accept it on 2 November.
As soon as a perishable food product is received and recorded into the store’s stock keeping records, it should then be moved immediately to a refrigerated area, as the slightest delay can ‘break the cold chain’ – causing germs and or bacteria to develop and multiply very quickly – thereby spoiling the perishable food product.
(2) Why is Temperature Control So Important with Food?
Remember, a cold chain is a temperature-controlled supply chain. So, an unbroken cold chain is an uninterrupted series of storage and distribution activities which maintain a given (safe) temperature range (according to our definition of a cold chain above). We will explain what the exact limits of this safe temperature range is in our next reading. In other words, the cold chain can be broken, when the correct temperature range is not maintained (at all times) for the perishable foods we work with, and sell to our customers.
That’s why it is so important to ensure that all perishable foods are received, handled and stored in a temperature controlled environment as soon as possible after being received into the store.
In our climate, especially in the summer months, breaking the cold chain is the biggest cause of products such as frozen meats and dairy products, such as milk, cream and cheese, going “off” whilst still within their safe shelf- life. And the biggest “culprit” is the time lapse (delays) between off-loading of products (from suppliers’ trucks) and either (cold) storage or display on the sales floor.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
We now have a better understanding of what perishable foods are. We also know what is meant by the terms, ‘cold chain’ and ‘supply chain’, and we also understand why temperature control is so important to maintain and extend the shelf-life of perishable foods. In our next reading, we will take a closer look at what is meant by the Temperature Danger Zone (TDZ); what happens to food when it is left in this zone for too long, and how we can keep perishable food out of the TDZ. See you then!