A staggering 1.6bn tonnes of food worth around $1.2tn is lost or goes to waste each year – one third of the total amount of food produced globally1 – due to inadequate supply chain infrastructure and supply chain inefficiencies. Shaun Evers explains the integral role that refrigeration can have in reducing this figure

The report published by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG)2 also highlighted that supply chain efficiency could help cut food waste by $700bn. However, with supply chains becoming more complex, understanding how best to deliver such significant reductions can be a real challenge for food manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers alike.

From robotics in warehouses to computerised shipping and tracking and even ultra-low emissions trucks, technology has changed the food industry for the better and has provided new levels of visibility throughout the supply chain. Without the critical infrastructure to support the storage of food, though, levels of food waste are unlikely to lessen.

Cold storage and refrigeration units, for instance, remain essential for maintaining temperatures and therefore the quality of food products and, if operated correctly, they have the potential to not only drive significant reductions in food wastage, but also energy. Equally, failure to maintain the integrity of cold storage can lead to significant deterioration of perishable food, as well as breaches in regulatory compliance and increases in carbon emissions.

Innovative monitoring and intervention solutions are one of the remedies for diminishing wastage and losses incurred throughout the cold chain. In a bid to address losses in the food supply chain, while at the same time reducing their cold storage costs, many leading businesses are seeing the value in adopting them.

Technological innovation
Managing a cold storage warehouse successfully requires a delicate balance of temperature control, refrigerant leak detection and management, as well as keeping personnel safe. Operational efficiencies such as leak reduction and temperature optimisation through the use of leading-edge products can ensure this balance is maintained, while at the same time ensuring the quality of food in storage does not diminish. New gas leak detection systems, for instance, can ensure leaks are quickly identified and swiftly repaired, minimising any potential environmental damage and safeguarding employees, without compromising the effectiveness of equipment.

As the UK supply chain transitions towards a greener future, and the enforcement of stringent environmental regulations such as the EU’s F-Gas regulations becomes more prominent, such solutions present opportunities to not only strengthen refrigerated supply chain operations and, perhaps more crucially, reduce food loss, but also improve compliance levels with existing regulatory requirements.

Under the F-Gas regulations, from January 2020, there will be a ban on any refrigerant with a GWP (Global Warming Potential) of more than 2500. While businesses will be prevented from topping up systems that use some hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant gases such as R404a and R507a – both commonly used in the food supply chain – with new fluid.

New F-Gas regulations also place a greater emphasis on carrying out regular gas leak checks on refrigeration systems. Operators of stationary refrigeration equipment, air conditioning, heat pumps and refrigeration units of refrigerated trucks and trailers that contain F-gases in quantities of five tonnes CO2 equivalent (CO2e), or more, must ensure that equipment is routinely checked for leaks. For apparatus without gas leak detection systems installed, the period between mandatory gas leak checks lessens.

The flammable characteristics of some class A2L refrigerants mean operators must ensure the concentration level in a room stays below the lower flammability level (LFL) to avert any threat of ignition. Requirements to maintain levels below the flammability threshold in case of leakage are underpinned by safety legislation and standards such as ISO 5149 and EN 378.

Gas detectors can be programmed to detect a wide range of both toxic and non-toxic gases, including Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Staff members are alerted to any sensed gas leak with an audio and visual alarm, while LED colours indicate the presence and status of each sensor. This ensures that any problem can be quickly rectified. What’s more, new products have been designed and developed to cover the A2L refrigerants in harsher environments, since not everyone is going down the CO2 route.

Keeping cool
While gas leaks are a foremost contributor to energy loss, inefficient cold store performance and product degradation, equally detrimental is poor temperature-control.

The good news is, much like the legislation that addresses refrigerant usage, the state-of-the-art technology that ensures the safe and efficient use of cold storage is constantly developing, meaning professionals now have the tools at their disposal to meet their obligations for refrigeration systems.

Advanced thermometers and temperature displays, for instance, enable users to monitor and optimise refrigeration systems to perform at the optimum temperature for the varied products being stored. Staff are immediately alerted of any irregularities in temperature, reducing unnecessary overheads from spoilage.

The most advanced devices are ultra-compact, allowing organisations to maximise available cold storage space – a valuable advantage given that cold store space is at a premium, with three-quarters of warehouse owners say they have no space as enquiries soar by up to 25 per cent3.

1 & 2<< https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/tackling-1.6-billion-ton-food-loss-and-waste-crisis.aspx
3 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/21/uk-warehouse-space-nears-capacity-firms-stockpile-for-brexit

Shaun Evers is managing director of Stonegate Instruments. Stonegate Instruments Ltd designs, develops and manufactures electronic equipment for the refrigeration industry. The company’s products are proven in cold storage facilities for reducing energy, carbon emissions and the associated costs.