The vast majority of fresh food distribution in the UK is undertaken in a chilled environment. And for good reason. Increased shelf life, improved quality, reduced risk of disease, less waste and less damage can all be partly or entirely attributed to the use of chill chains and the associated handling methods.
The driving force behind many of these developments has undoubtedly been the major supermarket chains. We didn’t see anything like the current level of chilled transport and chilled flow-through warehouses when we purchased our produce from the local greengrocer. So what set of circumstances enabled the supermarkets to develop their chill chains to the current levels?
To realise the real benefit of supplying produce at reduced temperatures it has to, as the name implies, be handled in a chill chain. The temperature of the products from the field at harvest needs to be reduced as soon as possible and maintained through washing, grading, packaging, distribution and retail. It was therefore the growth of the large supermarket chains, and their ability to control the entire supply chain back to the farmers and growers, that led this development. The increase in shelf life resulting from the use of chill chains has, in turn, provided the capability to import a wide variety of fruit and vegetables from anywhere in the world, in any growing season, and display this in retail outlets with a week’s shelf life remaining.
How then, did we manage previously? And how do they manage in other parts of the world where the chill infrastructure doesn’t exist and ambient temperatures are far higher?
Consider the fresh food supply chain in India. It’s extremely hot, distances are vast, roads are small and congested, infrastructure is poor in many areas, and chilled transport is virtually non-existent. A specialised vehicle to transport fresh food many have a tarpaulin to keep the sun off, yet fresh, high quality, low priced fruit and vegetables are available on the streets of the towns and cities. In a country that has a high proportion of vegetarians, this availability of low cost, fresh produce is essential.
The supply chains aren’t short. Produce passes from farmers to aggregators, to commission agents at wholesale markets, on to traders who sell at further wholesale markets to other traders, and small retailers who sell from carts and bicycles on the street.
Damage and waste is also interesting. The produce is handled roughly, it can be dropped from vehicles, walked on and thrown during grading, yet there isn’t a waste skip for produce anywhere. There is always a market for the less than perfect vegetable at the right price. And for severely damaged produce, there are always animals at the markets to consume what is left.
How then does high quality produce get to the consumption markets at a low price? Even though the chain has many links, it is fast. Most produce will reach the consumption markets about two days after harvest. Traders will sort and grade manually as they buy at the wholesale markets. The rail networks are used overnight to transport over greater distances, and small traders buy enough stock for their carts or small retail outlets to trade that day and return the next day for fresh produce. Transport time can also be used to allow some produce to ripen at harvest.
There are also many cultural differences. Fruit and vegetables aren’t imported and only seasonal foods are eaten. The market for frozen vegetables or processed fruit and vegetables is extremely small, further increasing dependence on fresh vegetables. There is some cold storage of potato, and dry ambient storage of onions, but virtually everything else is fresh and seasonal.
There are also the differences in shopping and consumption habits. If you buy enough fruit or vegetables to be used in the next day or two from a low price retailer on your way home, you don’t need produce with a week’s shelf life.
So has the development of the chill chains improved the quality and price of what we consume, and has it reduced waste? Well, yes, but not entirely. It has provided us with choices of the best quality produce from around the world and removed the limitations of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Increasing shelf life, of course, reduces some waste and as we are not about to change the shopping consumption habits of the public, the chill chain is extremely effective to satisfy our market requirements.
However, there are still some lessons to be learned, or I should probably say re-learned, on how a fresh food supply chain can be effective in our mostly temperate climate. Increasing consumption of local and seasonal produce, purchasing perishable products on a more regular basis from the rapidly growing convenience store formats, or using less frozen produce, are a few ways that we can reduce our reliance on the cold chain and see an increase in the quality and freshness of the fresh fruit and vegetables we consume.