Whether shipping food interstate or internationally, it’s an inexact science for product managers to accurately determine how much shelf life their products will have at journey’s end.
Use-by dates will give some indication (and possibly comfort to the retailer and consumer), but often the quality of the produce won’t align with the prescribed expiry – especially if that food has been exposed to temperature extremes and poor handling during transit.
With many product managers already in the dark about what their produce is experiencing in the global food transport network, trying to predict how the variability in conditions will impact shelf life, and ultimately the consumer experience, often becomes a matter of crude guesswork.
For beef and lamb producers, the guesswork has now been removed, thanks to new technology that monitors temperature control in real-time, while simultaneously showing the correlating impact on shelf-life days remaining via an automated meter within the one display dashboard.
The technology has been launched by Australian supply chain intelligence provider Escavox.
As previously profiled by Food and Drink Business, Escavox is the company behind the ‘blue box’ smart tracker, a mobile-phone-sized device that is deployed with food to monitor time, temperature, location, light and humidity.
Data from the trackers is relayed to product managers in real-time. Escavox AI driven algorithms provide visibility of the produce’s journey and, importantly, the impact those conditions have on the product.
The intelligence has proved invaluable for many food companies in Australia and abroad since the Sydney-based Escavox was launched in 2018, allowing supply chain managers to make immediate operational adjustments to fix urgent issues or implement structural change as part of longer-term strategic goals.
Its automated shelf-life calculator for the beef and lamb industries was launched in September and takes the service one step further.
“Escavox is the first, real time supply chain data company to be able to implement and visualise the impact of shelf life based on temperature,” says Meat & Livestock Australia’s (MLA) Market Access and Science project manager Long Huynh.
“The implementation of the shelf-life calculator into the Escavox platform is a major shift from temperature data to useful and actionable information.”
At stake, says Huynh, is $60 million worth of unforeseen shelf-life lost due to insufficient cold chain control within the Australian red meat supply chain alone, spanning from processors to customers.
How the calculator developed
Researchers from MLA in collaboration with expert colleagues from the University of Tasmania (UTAS), embarked on resolving the supply chain challenge by developing a new shelf-life algorithm (SLA), supported by a calculator that would give red meat suppliers data on how much time their products had left to be sold and safely consumed.
The accuracy of the SLA depends on tight temperature control for the duration of the journey.
MLA and UTAS ‘road tested’ the SLA for nine months, deploying Escavox trackers in thousands of cartons of chilled beef and lamb across domestic and international tracks via sea and air, as the cornerstone technology to validate their model.
Announced in April, the trial results showed that moving and storing vacuum packed chilled red meat consistently at or below -0.5C resulted in a rate of shelf-life loss per day of less than one day.
Conversely, moving or storing red meat consistently above -0.5C means shelf life is lost at a faster rate than one day per day of journey time.
The trial also confirmed that continuous monitoring of location and temperature across the supply chain from processor to destination could extend beef shelf-life by up to 50 days, and up to 30 days for lamb, provided crucial data from tracking, such as the technology deployed by Escavox, is used to improve cool chain operations.
The MLA calculator developed out of the trial was a manual, time consuming process, where meat processors would have to contact MLA to receive the data after the supply chain journey was completed.
Released by MLA under a creative commons license, the shelf-life calculator embedded in the Escavox system delivers the data in real-time, considered a world-first by Escavox chief operating officer Nici Sanderson.
“The automated process gives suppliers a sharper tool, offering faster and more accessible forecasting capability to take supply chain management to another level of sophistication,” she said.
“This is a particularly relevant result considering the current disruptions to global shipping due to the pandemic.
“For the exporter moving significant volumes of beef or lamb that represents substantial savings and potentially increased profit.”
Sanderson said the shelf-life calculator represented a substantial evolution in Escavox’s offering to the fresh food industry.
“As a result of the trial work we did with MLA, red meat suppliers are now able to monitor their supply chains in real time and, if required, make adjustments to extend product life to avoid spoilage and wastage at journey’s end,” she said.
“It provides customers with insights to improve supply chain performance, extend product shelf-life, protect brand integrity and strengthen quality assurance.
“For suppliers who subscribe to the feature, that’s money flowing back to their bottom line, while improving quality for the customer and reducing food waste.”