Built to task: Food for thought

We often take it for granted that the meat we consume every day is handled and transported in the most hygienic way possible, but behind the scenes, the transport industry has to go to great lengths to ensure meat intended for public sale is fit for human consumption. 

The key objective for transport businesses is to protect meat from contamination, as products processed at slaughter or cut-and-wrap facilities have the potential to be soiled with a variety of biological, chemical and physical contaminants if not handled, stored and transported appropriately. 

For instance, if meat is not maintained at the right temperature, spoilage or the multiplication of disease-causing microorganisms or parasites could present a risk to human health; and only proper transportation of carcasses and meat products will reduce the potential for contamination.

As a result, transport businesses the world over place high value on tackling the meat transport task in the most professional manner – knowing that despite the current horse meat scandal and the on-going ethical debate, overall demand is constantly rising.

While per capita meat consumption in the United States and other developed countries has plateaued over the past decade, meat consumption in developing countries continues to increase, having doubled over the last 20 years alone.* It is not clear what the consequences of this increase will be, particularly when coupled with a growing global population, but it is already conceivable that only modern transport equipment will be able to handle the associated transport task and maintain a functional supply chain.

On the equipment front, there are several options to a transport business venturing into the meat market. The most common model is the classic, mass-produced refrigerated van. The main difference to a ‘normal’ refrigerated unit is the interior design. Ideally, the inside is covered with a nontoxic, noncorrosive material like Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP), stainless steel or PVC coated stainless steel to ensure it can be cleaned easily and won’t contaminate the meat.

The body itself is normally made from panels that have a polystyrene or polyurethane core sandwiched between two skins of steel, aluminium or glass fibre reinforced resin. The outside colour is usually white to avoid unnecessary heating, but there are also reflective paints for refrigerated vehicles available. The reflecting effect of any material is diminished, however, if the outside of the vehicle is not kept clean.

The ability of the final product to maintain the desired temperature is described by a North American rating system developed by the Refrigerated Transport Foundation (RTF). Placards located on the outside front and inside rear of the trailer describe the trailer’s rating; form DF (deep frozen, less than -18°C) to C65 (chilled, greater than 18°C).

Next to surface protection, the second main feature is the actual storage system. Stainless steel meat-hanging systems are arguably the most popular choice to transport unpackaged, hanging meat; along with aluminium alloy rail systems bolted to the ceiling to ensure maximum utilisation and flexibility.

However, it is not unusual that transport businesses make use of the return travel to load general frozen or chilled freight, which is normally packed in pallets or boxes – making it necessary to remove the hooks hanging from the ceiling to obtain more space and load capacity. Sometimes that option is not feasible from to a hygienic point of view, so some companies now provide systems that are able to ‘collect’ the hooks in one spot, ensuring they take up less room inside the van.

To allow for optimal utilisation of the van, modern transport equipment can also maintain multiple temperature zones within one vehicle. This technology utilises two or more evaporators operating from the same power source, while movable partitions are used to create compartments for hauling up to three types of cargo, each with precise temperature requirements, at once.

Regardless of the layout, air circulation is one of the most important factors when talking about the interior design of a meat van, according to the US Department for Agriculture. “Refrigeration capabilities are meaningless if the refrigerated air is not properly circulated to maintain product temperature. Air circulation carries product heat and the heat that penetrates the walls, floors, and ceiling of the trailer to the refrigeration unit where it can be removed.”

There are two major methods of circulating air in refrigerated vehicles. Overhead, or top-air, delivery is the conventional method. The second method is bottom-air delivery, which has been employed extensively in seagoing van containers for several decades, but only to a limited extent in highway trailers.  In trailers with top-air delivery, air circulation and subsequent control of load temperatures can be enhanced by ceiling ducts to direct the air from the blower to the rear of the trailer, ribbed rear doors and side walls or high airflow floors that allow air to circulate under the load.

In harsh environments like Australia, country Canada or South America, it is also important to choose the right ancillary equipment, as travel on dirt or gravel roads and exposure to wind, rain and direct sun could increase the risk of a breakdown or equipment failure – which could cause irreparable product damage.

A third building block to create a functional meat van is the use of a GPS-based telematics system, which is able to integrate key performance data from refrigerated transport equipment and deliver it to the operator.

That need for full ‘traceability’ first arose as a must-have part of the production routine during the BSE crisis in the 1990s. At the time it had to be shown that the beef on the supermarket shelf had come from herds that had never seen any contact with BSE.
Today, the concept of traceability has developed for the entire meat supply chain as a way of showing the provenance, authenticity, wholesomeness and healthiness of the food on offer as well as being a food safety measure.

Modern telematics systems can monitor all parameters of the reefer unit (set point, return air, send air, mode etc.) across all zones, as well as fuel consumption, box temperatures and even door activity – combining the information with continuous location monitoring. The most recent generation is also capable of controlling the reefer set point and changing operational parameters remotely – all by the comfort of the company’s head office.

Most importantly, though, haulage companies can now receive an individualised evaluation of the collected data – ensuring all the data received from the vehicle “beyond the farm” is not only visible in some kind of online portal or on an in-cab screen, but can also be actively controlled. The systematic analysis of the generated data such as door activity, position, non-driving time, temperature or tyre inflation pressure can then assist the transport business to design leaner, more efficient processes in order to work more economically.

After all, a cut of beef will have taken quite a journey before it lands on the consumer's plate – passing through a number of stages in the course of production, processing and sales – and only seamless supervision can ensure peace of mind at the dinner table.

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