What is Food Logistics?
Food logistics creates processes and strategies for shipping food and food ingredients. Unlike transportation management for non-food products, food logistics requires attention to other considerations like maintaining food safety and shipping perishable items that require a quick shipment.
Food freight often requires climate and temperature control during loading and shipping, whether to prevent the load from becoming too hot or to refrigerate or freeze items. Within food freight, logistics needs vary wildly. For instance, some food is non-perishable with a long shelf-life, while the logistics lifecycle of other food includes harvesting, processing, manufacturing, and distributing.
Why is Food Logistics Important?
Food waste is a significant problem in our world. One in 10 people is malnourished worldwide, and “one-third of all food produced globally by weight is lost or wasted between farm and fork.” This is a massive waste for those who need the food and dramatically impacts the environment, climate change, businesses, and economies. Proper logistics can help prevent a significant amount of this waste.
Requirements of Food Logistics
- Some food can be transported in regular trucks. Food and beverage shipments often require special forms of transportation, such as expedited shipping. Many types of food need to ship in temperature-controlled environments. This generally means transporting in a refrigerated or “reefer” truck or trailer with a cooling system.
- Storage: Temperature often needs to be considered during storage and transport. Some foods require a refrigerated or frozen environment during storage, while others need dry storage. Shippers must plan the steps from warehouse to transport, such as considering how the temperature or food quality could be impacted, from sitting too long in a loading area to going into a trailer that has not been pre-cooled.
- Packaging: Packaging plays a role in food safety and preservation. Food may have preparation considerations before packaging, such as produce that needs to be washed. Packaging varies by the type of food and may include boxes, large bags called super sacks or bulk totes, weighted bags, or case packs.
- Regulations: Shippers need to follow rules to ensure food safety. These vary by location but tend to focus on good hygiene practice (GHP), good manufacturing practice (GMP), and hazard analysis at critical control points (HACCP). Some regulations include the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the Food and Drugs Act. The World Trade Organization has the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement).
Types of Food Logistics
- Farm to Processor Logistics: This involves the movement of raw food products from the farm to a processing or manufacturing facility. It includes steps like harvesting, packing, and transportation.
- Processing and Manufacturing Logistics: Once the food has arrived at the processing facility, it needs to be transformed into a suitable form for consumption. This could involve cleaning, cutting, cooking, packaging, and more.
- Warehouse and Storage Logistics: After processing, food products must be stored properly until they are ready to be transported to retail outlets. This involves maintaining proper temperature and humidity levels to prevent spoilage.
- Transportation Logistics: This is moving the finished food products from the warehouse to the retail outlets. It requires careful planning to ensure the food remains fresh and safe during transit.
- Retail Logistics: Once the food arrives at the retail outlets, it must be properly stored and displayed for customers to purchase. This involves maintaining proper storage conditions and rotating stock to ensure freshness.
- Consumer Logistics: This is the final step in the food logistics chain, involving the transportation of food from the retail outlet to the consumer’s home. It might also involve home storage and preparation.
- Reverse Logistics: This is the process of managing returnable containers and packaging materials and dealing with unsold or returned food products.
- Cold Chain Logistics: This refers to a temperature-controlled supply chain necessary for products like dairy, meat, seafood, and some pharmaceuticals that must be kept at certain temperatures to prevent spoilage.
- E-commerce Food Logistics: With the rise of online food delivery and grocery services, picking, packing, and delivering food items ordered online directly to consumers are becoming increasingly important.
- Emergency Food Logistics: This involves delivering food supplies in emergencies or disasters where the standard supply chain might be disrupted.
Challenges in Food Logistics
- Maintaining Product Integrity: Maintaining the integrity of food products is challenging. Shippers must manage inventory, consider the farm-to-fork chain, use proper storage and shipping temperature control, and manage other components. Each shipment can require a unique system, as food items vary so much in their needs. Even beverage logistics differ from food freight logistics, and food service logistics differ from supermarket, ingredient, and other logistics.
- Managing Costs: Regulations can lead to increased costs, and so can rising gas prices, high shipping rates, and other factors. Plus, companies need to properly manage their inventory and coordinate food logistics to prevent food freight from going to waste and therefore losing money on that food.
- Ensuring Timely Delivery: It’s not always easy to get food from one place to another within a proper time frame to ensure safety and integrity. Delays can happen in numerous stages, including from regulations, overloaded ports, and partners.
- Complying with Regulations: Regulations can help ensure food safety but can be an obstacle. Over time, the number of regulations put in place have hindered shippers. For instance, they can lead to shipping delays, which is harmful to maintaining the freshness of food items. For example, transporting a shipment of fresh berries from a farm in Oregon to a supermarket in New York might face an unexpected delay due to an FDA inspection. Although this regulatory check ensures food safety, the delay jeopardizes the berries’ freshness and reduces their shelf-life, potentially affecting sales.
- Communication Problems: Poor communication between different parts of the food supply chain can lead to problems with proper logistics. This can result in poor alignment between various supply chain participants and disrupt processes required to execute food shipments, resulting in mistakes, inefficiencies, and, ultimately, food waste.
How Does Technology Support Food Logistics?
- Real-time tracking and wearable devices help shippers know where food is at all parts of the process and how long each component takes.
- Artificial Intelligence helps to create more efficient route planning to keep food fresh.
- Blockchain technology can reduce food fraud and provide transparency in the supply chain.
- Big data analytics can take massive amounts of data and turn it into insights that help shippers optimize their food and beverage distribution processes.