Food Transportation Safety: Best Practices for a Secure Supply Chain

Jul 21, 2023

Food transportation is a lifeline of the entire food industry — connecting production and supply by moving food from its producer to the consumer. Out of all forms of food transport, road freight, or trucking, is the most popular choice; in the EU trucks carry 77% of all freight transported over land.

Many moving parts (pun intended) come into play to transport food safely, so let’s look behind the curtains of the food supply chain transport industry. We’ll peer into its main issues, learn the best practices to maintain food quality standards, and find out what the industry regulations are.

Why Is Food Transportation Important

The answer is straightforward — food transportation is important because entire businesses depend on it. It’s an integral part of supply and demand, meaning transportation is vital in supplying consumers with the food they want when they want it. This importance shapes the two general requirements a food transportation service has to meet:

  • Delivering goods on time and at the right place.
  • Following food safety transportation protocols.

Avoiding damage or food contamination during transit is crucial, to say the least, especially when working with easy-to-perish goods of varying shelf life.

Because maintaining food safety is easier said than done, food transporters are held under high scrutiny.

So let’s look at the latest food safety practices.

Best Practices for Ensuring Food Safety During Transportation

Most of the world adopted a food safety protocol in the early 2000s called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system. This means a business has to be aware and accountable for everything that’s done with the food. This system embodies the principles of best safety practices when transporting food and is especially crucial when transporting raw food like meat and seafood or frozen products.

But how does that look in detail?

Proper Packaging and Handling

The three general rules of thumb ensuring a smooth and safe food transit are:

  1. Choosing suitable packaging materials

It’s best to use materials protecting the food from bumps and impacts, such materials as corrugated fiberboard, foam bricks, or solid plastic. To maintain the refrigeration of perishable foods, use insulated food shipping boxes and cold packs.

  1. Implementing and following proper labelling and handling instructions

Clearly label each package with the name of the food product and include the date and time of packaging. For stability, fixate and avoid overstacking containers, and handle the food carefully to avoid damage or contamination. Use pallets to maximise the space and load capacity of the truck.

  1. Avoiding cross-contamination

Separate different types of food to prevent direct contact and use separate containers, bags, wraps or sealed containers. Remember to use disposable gloves, especially when handling different food items. Place food containers on clean surfaces — never place food on floor level.

Lack of proper packaging or handling may lead to damaged goods, additional costs and possible food-borne illnesses. According to the food safety overview by the World Health Organization (WHO), almost one in ten people worldwide fall ill after eating contaminated food. So let’s not add to that number.

A quick tip: when possible, keep the number of transfers to a minimum to avoid damaging the packaging or the product.

Temperature Control

Temperature control almost equates to perishable goods and refrigerated shipping. A good practice when transporting food is to consider:

  1. The transported food’s lifespan

Consider the duration of transit, look for ways to shorten the route and plan ahead. Delays happen, so be expectant and be careful when planning the transporting of varying shelf-life foods.

  1. The types of temperature-controlled vehicles and equipment

Consider using a fully integrated refrigerated truck which is an isothermal truck with an in-built refrigeration engine. Or, if a purse-friendly option is what you’re after, try an insulated trailer with eutectic plates. Keep in mind such equipment might be hard to come by since seasonality influences its availability.

  1. Monitoring and maintaining temperature throughout the journey

Pre-cool the truck before loading. Distribute the load in a way that allows for proper air movement and temperature distribution (avoid overloading!). Schedule temperature checks according to the duration of transit and the perishability of the foods.

Fresh, unfrozen food kept under 5 °C, stays fresh for longer since at this temperature microorganisms become dormant, and the enzymes responsible for decomposing the food slow down. If you’re transporting hot foods, they should be kept at or above 63°C to prevent bacterial growth. The more you know!

Bottom line, you can look at it this way – you have to transport food responsibly and a vehicle with temperature control equals longer freshness and more time for transit.

A quick tip: pre-chill or pre-heat the transport containers before putting the food inside. It helps to create an initial favourable temperature environment.

Sanitation and Hygiene

Maintaining sanitary transportation practices is crucial to food safety, as safe food cannot be transported without hygienic conditions. To maintain a great food transportation business a regular wash of hands won’t cut it, you need to ensure:

  1. Regular cleaning and sanitization of vehicles

Draw up a cleaning schedule, the more frequent the better. Don’t be afraid to use antibacterial chemicals, but don’t use abrasive cleaners or harsh chemicals which could damage surfaces. After cleaning, apply a food-safe sanitiser to all food-contact surfaces.

  • For cleaning: soap, detergent, and degreaser.
  • For disinfecting: use bleach, alcohol and chlorine (moderate cleaning solution strength by dilution).
  • For sterilising: steam, heat, and, in extreme cases, radiation.
  1. Personal hygiene practices for drivers and food handlers

Instruct your personnel on the importance of sanitation practices and establish a personal hygiene standard in the work environment. We’re not Walter White from Breaking Bad, so we won’t need a full-blown suit. However, disposable gloves are a must for proper hygiene practices when handling food (aprons are a suggestion). Wash hands frequently when in contact with food and use hands-free trash receptacles to minimise bacterial contact.

  1. Proper waste disposal

Dispose of cleaning waste, cleaning solutions or dirty cloths, depending on local regulations. In the EU* the Waste Framework Directive (WFD) lays down some basic waste management principles, some of which are:

  • Don’t endanger or harm anyone, anything or any place (read: environment).
  • Dispose of waste without bringing risk to water, air, soil, plants or animals.
  • Your waste mustn’t be a nuisance through noise or odour.

*Despite no longer being a member of the EU, the UK follows the same principles.

Some might seem childish, like making sure your staff keep proper hygiene. But compliance with sanitation standards is considered one of the industry’s biggest issues. Improper sanitation may lead to bacterial transmission, food contamination and the spread of disease, which is no laughing matter.

So remember to keep your transport and equipment clean before loading the products and your staff trained in the ways of sanitation.

Traceability and Documentation

Why is tracing needed? If foodborne disease outbreaks or the food gets contaminated, tracing helps to find the source of the contamination as well as where and when it happened.

This process also helps remove the affected product from the market much quicker, reducing the spread and number of foodborne illnesses.

Thus, a business must document its processes to ensure the safety of transported goods. A good practice to follow while transporting food is to be proactive about it by:

  1. Implementing robust tracking systems

Install a telematic system or use a service with it (e.g. Spotos). It tracks your freight GPS status in real-time and informs you on your device. Or you could also go for a disposable tracker that records multiple condition factors at a time — the position of the shipment, temperature, humidity, and shock. For example, Tive promises exactly that.

  1. Documenting critical information, including origin, batch numbers, and expiry dates

Before distribution, the supplier will draft and co-sign a bill of lading (BOL). The bill outlines the terms for the shipment of food and designates ownership of the goods to the buyer.

Keep a separate record for each shipment, matching each BOL with the shipment purchase order and invoice. This is particularly important to food manufacturers as delays in transit may occur and can result in expired foods. So, when entering the buyer’s warehouse, keep track of records so they can be processed accordingly.

  1. Utilising technology for enhanced traceability and transparency

Implement the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology to (literally) help you along the way. This tech uses radio waves to capture and transmit information stored on RFID tags attached to food products, pallets, or containers. The tags store product details, batch numbers, expiration dates, and origin. Accurate and efficient traceability!

Training and Education

Keeping staff well informed saves from possible unwanted expenses. Training should always be provided when there’s responsibility involved. A food shipper is usually responsible for the safety and sanitary conditions of the food during transport. A great practice to take up is to start:

  1. Educating employees on food safety protocols

Standardise food safety by establishing protocols. Follow any updates on the latest food safety laws, and occasionally bring your employees up to speed. Two great places to start are a guide to World Food Safety Day 2023 by the World Health Organization and the publications of the European Food Safety Authority.

  1. Providing specialised training for drivers and handlers

Bought new cooling units for your trucks or decided to opt for a different route tracking system? Maybe a new proof of delivery system was implemented? With new changes come new challenges, so don’t forget to update your crew!

  1. Promoting a culture of food safety awareness

Food safety training is a great preventative safety measure because it can save you from additional business costs and by ensuring a professional work environment, you’re growing a team of qualified specialists.

Food Transportation Issues

No industry is safe from hiccups. While some are easily avoidable, others are long-time bottlenecks of the industry.

  • Must Arrive By Date (MABD) and Retailer Chargebacks — MABDs are strict delivery dates set for the shoppers by their customers (retailers). If the dates are missed, or the goods are presented in a worse-than-agreed-upon state— a transportation company may be fined or a retailer may not accept the shipment.
  • Refrigerated Shipping — not all food transporting businesses can rock temperature-controlled transportation since seasonality impacts the availability of refrigerated vehicles. Not having the food refrigerated or frozen, may result in food spoilage, contamination and unplanned additional costs.
  • Handling and Contamination — whether because of the lacking communication, personnel training or safety protocols, poor maintenance leads to unforeseen expenditure. Therefore containers and vehicles carrying the shipment have to be clear of any debris, clean of contaminants and odours before loading and shipping the goods.
  • Less-than-Truckload (LTL) Shipping — means not enough freight to fill in a full truck. The empty space is sometimes used for shipping different products to different places. That is an issue because a truck with such a load will take more time to finish shipment resulting in a higher chance for a MABD to happen. In such cases, cross-contamination has a higher chance to occur as well.
  • Market Volatility — this is an issue since a stupendous amount of economic factors contribute to the cost of food transport, and maintaining a steady quality and price of a service is sometimes harder done than said. Some of the fluctuating factors are oil prices, the labour market, the price of available inventory and transportation, seasonality, etc.

Industry Regulations and Standards

Food transportation requirements and regulations revolve around the HACCP system. A business following it is made aware of and responsible for every part of the production process. The EU food hygiene regulations fall under the same HACCP principle.

HACCP means analysing and controlling bio-chemical, and physical hazards ranging from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.

In human language, the standard principles sound like this:

  • Ensuring proper handling, packaging, and safety of goods.
  • Ensuring the proper equipment use.
  • Keeping the highest level of sanitisation.
  • Maintaining proper process documentation.

But what about industry laws regulating the standards?

In the EU food safety is regulated by the general food law which the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) helped create. Today it’s referred to as the food and feed law.

What about the UK? Since Brexit took place, there have been some legislative changes to the food laws post-Brexit. But those regarding food transportation safety haven’t changed and can be found on the official governmental legislation page about the food regulation.

Why Spotos is perfect for your food transportation

To better explain the essence, let’s borrow the famous slogan from Nokia — Spotos connects people. With extra steps, of course.

Spotos offers shippers access to a vast, Europe-wide network of carriers. You can hitch a ride for your freight using our automated system that matches your freight needs perfectly with trucks looking for return loads. Dedicated refrigerated vehicle fleet and real-time tracking will ensure prompt and safe delivery of food products.

Food Transportation Frequently Asked Question

What is the most common way to transport food?

Trucking is the most popular choice of freight in the EU, trucks carry 77% of all freight transported over land.

How does temperature affect food safety during transport?

Temperature greatly affects food safety during transport. It’s best to keep foods at temperatures between 2-7°C to avoid the growth and spread of harmful bacteria and prevent other types of infection.

What packaging materials are suitable for transporting perishable food items?

Cold packs, insulated food shippers, solid plastics, and foam bricks are great when transporting food that’s perishable. The simplest and safest solution to transport food products is cold packs.

What are the best practices for preventing cross-contamination in food logistics?

The best practice to prevent food from cross-contamination is:

  • Checking the delivery temperature
  • Keeping toxic chemicals away from food
  • Not using floor-level storage
  • Keeping your storage space clean and looking after it
  • Using the First In, First Out (FIFO) system
  • Labelling your goods
How can I ensure proper cleaning and sanitization of transportation vehicles?

Making sure your transport is clean and ready before transport, means getting your hands dirty (pun intended) and cleaning manually:

  1. Remove debris using a lint-free cloth or wipe
  2. Remove soil deposits off food contact surfaces
  3. Wash off all residues
  4. Apply detergent and give it a good scrubbing
  5. Rinse thoroughly and use disinfectant
  6. Dry off the vehicle
  7. Rinse and repeat until clean (another pun intended. I’ll just let myself out.)
How does food transportation affect the environment?

Generally speaking, food transportation affects the environment by adding to greenhouse gas emissions, which can be measured by food miles. Food mileage helps determine how much CO2 gets produced while transporting a tonne of food over a unit of kilometres or miles.

Cargo ships have the lowest CO2 emissions, 15-30 grammes per tonne of food per kilometre, followed by trains, cars and lorries. While aeroplanes emit between 570 and 1580 grammes of CO2 per tonne per kilometre.

How does transportation costs affect food prices?

Increasing transportation costs usually increase food prices. Transportation influences the overall cost structure of the food supply chain — longer distances between production areas and markets, fuel price fluctuations, transportation infrastructure limitations, and the choice of transportation mode all contribute to increased costs.

However, it’s hard to determine the extent of each factor’s impact. But generally speaking, product pricing may depend on the transportation method, seasonality issues, and perishability.

How much food is wasted during transportation?

It’s hard to estimate how much, but a large part of wasted food in transit is due to unsuitable transportation conditions, which is why it’s so important to maintain standards.

How long can you transport frozen food?

The time of frozen food transport depends on the form of freezing and where the frozen foods are contained. Low quality-bags tend to last up to a day, while good containers filled with dry ice and a bag may keep food frozen for about up to a week.

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