Amid the current emphasis on the importance of food safety, those companies shipping foods internationally must adhere to strict cargo holding rules. Furthermore, from 2006, EU food hygiene rules will demand that all food is traceable to its source, something that has provided technology companies with an opportunity, as Deirdre Mason found out.

As international rules for safe food grow more stringent, and as customers become more insistent on perfect condition, shippers have to look increasingly to technology to make sure that cargo arrives in perfect condition.

The European Union (EU) is strict in its conditions for sending food by sea. Bulk foodstuffs have to be sent in receptacles or containers that are only used for food if there is any risk of contamination, and these have to be clearly marked. Where different foodstuffs are shipped at the same time, they have to be effectively separated to avoid any risk of cross-contamination.

From January 2006, EU food hygiene rules will demand even more. All food will have to be traceable to its source, something that is already opening up opportunities for new technology that can trace a cargo from farm to fork.

Fortunately, as well as making legislative demands, the EU has been prepared to throw money at solutions to the problems they create. A €2.5m EU grant has played a large part in developing a new radio frequency identification (RFID) system for providing real-time, intelligent, end-to-end tracking and tracing for globally transported goods. The ParcelCall project involved a consortium of leading European industrial and academic partners and includes GPS (global positioning system) and “thinking tags” that measure and monitor environmental conditions – crucial where perishable goods are involved.

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The University of Edinburgh, Scotland, led the socio-economic research part of the project. Professor Robin Williams, who headed the team, says: “ParcelCall focuses on interoperability, open interfaces and standardisation to allow seamless tracking and tracing across the entire logistics and transportation chain.”

Thinking tags

This traceability, involving ports of origin and delivery as well as the sea journey itself, is vital in these more litigious times. Resolving a dispute about the condition of food on delivery is far easier when technology like “thinking tags” can show what happened to the food at all stages of its journey overseas. A US company, Savi Networks, has linked up with port developer Hutchison Port Holdings to build and operate an RFID identification system to track and manage containerised ocean cargo in ports all over the world.

Before the advent of genetically modified crops, bulk transport of different growers’ produce in a single batch was not in itself a problem. However, the EU’s stringent requirements on labelling, and consumer rejection of GM food, means that shippers from North America in particular are turning to individual containers rather than a single ship’s hold for transporting produce such as GM maize.

William Coyle, from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s economic research service, says: “Containerised shipping is commonly used for perishable and other processed food products, but is even making inroads with bulk commodities, like grains and oilseeds.

“The low cost of ocean shipping, the cheapest of all transportation modes over long distances, enhances linkages between urban port cities and foreign suppliers. Containerised shipping also conforms well with the standards and product volumes that modern, cost-conscious supermarkets prefer.”

The USDA notes that ocean shipping is increasingly dominated by the use of refrigerated containers, with built-in units on top powered by electricity and sometimes with built-in fuel tanks and generator sets. Alternatively, palletised units are loaded, four to eight pallets at a time, into a refrigerated vessel, or else a clip-on refrigeration system is used. Here, the containers have two large holes top and bottom where they plug into the ship’s air supply.

Benefits for developing countries

Container manufacturers such as US-based ThermoSafe and Swedish company Envirotainer offer container ranges for products where temperature control is vital. ThermoSafe’s insulated transport containers, designed for frozen foods and similar perishable products, claim to be able to hold foods at –75C to +10C, according to specifications and needs. Its latest container is a ‘+bulk transporter’ that will take pallet-sized loads, and because of its internal cooling system, can keep food at the required temperature through a variety of local conditions. Envirotainer has a ten-year record of supplying temperature-controlled containers to worldwide transporters like DHL Danzas Air & Ocean.

Importantly, systems that keep food traceable and in perfect condition can especially bring huge benefits to developing countries. The varying conditions, however, at international ports are a challenger for shippers. William Hall, director of US-based Seaport Consultants, points out that often, a country will have an old, ramshackle port in one part of the harbour but a bustling container terminal on the other side: “This has considerable significance for how US producers move small consignments, or food aid, in the future.”

Rather than bringing food aid to East Africa, for example, on pallets or in bags in a single large shipment to the old, inefficient port, the alternative might be to bring it in containers on a scheduled service and deliver the aid directly to the point of consumption in much smaller shipments over a longer period of time, he says.

“Ten years ago, before that container terminal existed, there would have been only one answer. Today, well, the answer is not quite so clear cut,” Hall adds.