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How the Pandemic Affected the Cold Chain

Where to Go from Here?

How the Pandemic Affected the Cold Chain

From ASHRAE Journal Newsletter: June 23, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the cold chain. From protecting workers in densely populated facilities to dealing with products intended for shuttered schools and restaurants, the pandemic disrupted the cold chain.

According to a survey by the Global Cold Chain Alliance, supply chain disruptions, access to personal protective equipment and access to cleaning supplies are some challenges the cold chain experienced because of the pandemic. The pandemic has also affected revenue and costs. About 80% of those who responded to the GCCA’s survey said they have experienced an increase in costs with the most common uptick of costs being between 1-5%. 

Andrew Pearson, Ph.D., C.Eng., Fellow ASHRAE, and Douglas Reindl, Ph.D., P.E., Fellow ASHRAE, discuss how the cold chain is faring during the COVID-19 pandemic and where it can go from here.

1. What do engineers need to know about designing for the cold chain in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Pearson: The pandemic demonstrated that the cold chain infrastructure needs to be robust, resilient and flexible. The consumer demand changed suddenly with a large swing initially towards more frozen and chilled foods that could be frozen at home. At the same time as systems were being worked hard, there was increased difficulty in getting skilled mechanics to repair systems so those that remained operational were in a strong position.

Reindl: We will need to consider strategies that can increase resiliency of key links in the cold chain. One of the most significant impacts that SARS-CoV-2 has had on the cold chain for foodstuffs is the spot-closure of meat production facilities (beef, poultry, etc.). Idling these facilities has led to both significant disruptions and waste. 

Although more research is needed to fully understand the modality of transmission of SARS and similar diseases, airborne transmission is clearly a key route. As such, the air-distribution design in these facilities and the potential of other ancillary technologies that are capable of interrupting or capturing droplet nuclei may mitigate person-to-person spread in these densely populated facilities. 

Engineers will need to be holistic in their thinking as design alternatives are sought for these types of facilities. For example, something as simple as deploying plexiglass partitions to create desired physical distancing for workers on the production floor has the potential to impede cleaning and sanitizing operations that are essential to prevent amplification of bacteria that can contaminate food products. 

2. How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect cold chain operations?

Pearson: Clients who were planning to invest in replacement equipment for new facilities have continued as planned, and in some cases, have even brought forward their replacement plans. Construction of new facilities slowed initially due to restrictions on construction sites, but this has picked up again. However, there is some evidence that longer range planning of new builds is not currently happening to the same extent, so it is possible that there will be a significant downturn in construction in the first half of next year. 

In food production facilities, there was some shift of product mix, but, in general, the factories coped with this. The food services sector was harder hit, particularly suppliers to specialist-branded fast food outlets, so stock moved more slowly but led to a gap upstream in the supply chain that only became evident when the fast food outlets started trading again. This has been managed to a certain extent by limited reopening of the outlets. Some restaurants and fast food outlets were able to offer delivery services to partially offset the drop in revenue, but this was not enough to fully compensate. 

The effect of the downturn in this segment will be felt for a long time to come.

Reindl: As I noted above, one of the most significant impacts of SARS-CoV-2 to the cold chain was its rapid spread in densely populated production facilities—most notably, meat processing facilities. This forced temporary closure for these facilities, which directly impacted the employees of these facilities but collaterally impacted the producers since their stock could not be introduced into the cold chain for processing. 

What resulted from the outage of processing facilities was the euthanizing of hundreds of thousands of animals. Dairy producers and processors were also severely impacted because of the significant market dislocations created by stay-at-home orders. For example, one of the largest consumers of fluid milk are K-12 schools. The immediate shutdown of K-12 schools all but stopped the demand for single portion (e.g. half pint) fluid milk. Dairy processing has significant production infrastructure for processing fluid milk and fill lines for those products that cannot be quickly repurposed for other uses. As a result, significant quantities of milk did not make it to consumers or markets, but rather were disposed of.

There were other impacts that occurred further downstream in the cold chain. For example, refrigerated storage and distribution networks that, principally, serve food service operations (restaurants, cafeterias, etc.) where upended when those cold chain customers were forced to close to comply with state-mandated shelter-at-home orders. Many employees that work in this part of the cold chain were furloughed.

3. How will this pandemic affect the cold chain’s innovations and best practices?

Pearson: There has been an increased focus on remote monitoring of performance and robust, automated systems that require minimal manual operation. Flexibility to switch from chilled to low-temperature storage has been difficult, leading to great overcapacity in some segments of the market and undercapacity in others. This flexibility needs to be designed in from the start, as it is difficult to retrofit.

Reindl: Strategies that can deliver engineering solutions that provide resiliency, flexibility, convertibility and cost-effectiveness will be sought.