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The good, the bad and the ugly of cold stores

The quality and efficiency of a cold store depends on the quality of the components that go into making it, reveal market leaders, who highlight best practices as well as the issues plaguing the sector.

| | Jan 15, 2016 | 12:42 pm
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“Alpen Capital has released a study in May 2015 that indicates that food imports into the UAE is expected to grow from AED 13.9 billion in 2011 to a staggering AED 30.8 billion in 2020,” cites Brent Melvin, General Manager, Supply Chain Solutions at Massar.

Ghaleb Abusaa, Engineer and Arbitrator at The Three Factors Company, sharing another piece of statistics, reveals that the region imported as much as 37.2 million metric tonnes of food in 2007 – more than three times the food produced locally.

To say that the GCC countries largely rely on imports to meet most of their food requirements is to state the obvious. What needs to be highlighted are two facts which Abusaa and Melvin respectively share: a) “For food safety and an extended shelflife of food items, refrigeration is mandatory” and b) “Without cold stores, food wastage would be much higher than what it already is, leading to greater costs for consumers”

Given this reality, cold stores play a critical role in the region. Henrique Pereira, Managing Director at Seabra, putting it bluntly, says: “Without cold stores, we wouldn’t have food in the supermarkets or in the restaurants.”

Melvin adds, “In countries like the UAE, fresh and frozen produce would potentially be out of stock from stores as the supply chains try to keep up with the demand for just-in-time deliveries.”

Despite this ever-impending potential situation, what is the sector’s attitude towards building and maintaining efficient and safe cold stores? It seems like it is a mixed bag of good practices, challenges and ways of overcoming them, which could sometimes be devious.
The good – construction checklist

So what makes a cold store effective and efficient? The answer evidently is: The quality of the components that go into constructing it. But the issue is more complex than this pithy statement would have us believe. In Pereira’s opinion, it is very important to understand the purpose that a cold store is going to serve. He explains through a series of questions: “What will it store? What is the product rotation and volume? What is the input temperature and the desired storage temperature? How to minimise inefficiencies in the logistics process, for example, reducing the time the doors are open?” Pereira believes that by being equipped with answers to these questions, one can design the best solution for a particular need. He stresses that there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to cold stores.

Melvin agrees, and says that there are many cold store applications, be they for chilled, ambient or frozen storage. He elaborates: “The type of products to be stored determine the type of facility, temperature and humidity requirements. Fresh produce will significantly differ in storage requirements when compared to frozen or pharmaceutical products.”

Keeping the specifics aside, which apply to each cold store, Abusaa offers a basic checklist that the concerned personnel must follow when constructing a cold store:

  1. Project total area As a rule of thumb, the total project area should be four times the built-up area. This is to allow for vehicular movement outside the main cold store building, service buildings, etc.
  2. The weighing station This is required to monitor goods going in and out of the facility, and process data through computer programs for different purposes, including efficiency measures of the operation.
  3. Docks These include dock levellers, dock shelters, barriers and doors
  4. The building layout This is important to maximise the utilisation of the built-up area, and at the same time, to harmonise the work-flow.
  5. The envelop It mainly covers the insulated envelop of the cold rooms and processing areas. Thickness of insulation depends on the final temperature in each room or section of the cold store.
  6. The civil works The civil works include the special loading on the floors, the finishing, belowzero-Celsius rooms, and floor protection against frost and ice formation
  7. The pallets and forklifts This includes either a fixed racking system or removable pallets and forklifts passages within the refrigerated rooms
  8. The refrigeration system Depending on the purpose, temperature levels, size of the cold store and refrigeration heat load, the systems can be a standalone commercial type or a heavy duty centralised system.
  9. Food safety in the cold store Abusaa suggests a few practices that need to be followed during the commercial operation of the facility:

a) For those running the facility:

  • Watch out for germs, moulds, microorganisms, insects, etc. as they might cause food deterioration.
  • Control the temperature, humidity, oxygen and airborne contaminants to preserve the food.
  • Do not underestimate minor issues.
  • Keep condensers ventilated and avoid frost accumulation.
  • Do not melt frozen products and re-freeze them.
  • Avoid mixing many products.
  • Appoint a person in charge and subject him to training, education and certification.
  • Maintain proper records and use calibrated tools.
  • Have an expert examine and analyse records and recommend required actions periodically.
  • Keep track of industry and advancements in legislations and changes.

b) For the inspectors:

  • Go where they do not expect you to go. Do not follow guided  tours.
  • Be armed with simple and effective tools.
  • Update your knowledge.

The bad – the challenges

Following the aforementioned checklist should make life easy; however, there are a few other issues which invariably creep into the system. Pereira says that although an improvement in quality requirements by owners and developers has been observed, there still seems to be a long road ahead to be at par with the European or US standards.

One of the challenges is dealing with price wars. “A lot of pressure is put on price, instead of looking at the value delivered,” Pereira highlights. “Sometimes people seem to forget that these facilities are built to last many years, and the total cost of ownership should be the main concern.”

The other issue is poor or sub-standard engineering design. “Because of the price pressure, a lot of ‘inventive ways’ are practised by some contractors to lower the price, taking advantage of the lack of technical knowledge of the owners and developers,” reveals Pereira. “We need more and better consultants who really control specifications and make sure, in the end, we’re making the ‘apples to apples’ comparisons between offers.” The other troubling issues, he says, are difficulty in reaching desired temperatures and humidity levels and the lack of suitable control systems.

Abusaa agrees with Pereira when he says that, at times, cost is prioritised over quality. He draws a vivid picture of what transpires behind the scenes of projects: “Suppliers and contractors claim that the clients’ decisions are driven by cost and not quality, thus quality issues start surfacing soon, upon putting into commercial operation. On the other hand, we have the counter-claim by clients who say that suppliers and contractors exaggerate markups and profit margins, and then those contractors give sub-contracts to non-qualified labour. This problem mainly exists in small-size projects, where qualified consultants are not involved.

“In medium-size projects, the same problem exists but this is because of not employing consultants. From the investors’ point of view, there is a lack of professional refrigeration consulting offices. It is claimed that those consultants ultimately go back to the contractors to help them design the projects, thus impartiality is void, and extra consultancy fees are not justified.”

In Abusaa’s view, unlike HVAC projects, refrigeration projects require higher skills and knowledge. “Therefore,” he concedes, “the investors’ claim is somewhat justified. There is, indeed, a lack of professional and qualified refrigeration consultancy firms.” Abusaa thinks that in largesize refrigeration projects, this problem is not as severe as the small- and medium-size projects. “Because,” he says, “it involves pre-qualifications and careful selection due to the size of investment and the high financial risks involved with low quality.”

Throwing light on the current scenario in the UAE, Melvin says that like many industries, there are both good and bad operators. “UAE municipalities play an important role in ensuring that cold stores are up to the mark, meeting predefined criteria,” he admits. “Moreover, many cold store operators boast quality marks of ISO 9000, 14000, 18000 and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP). In addition to the quality standards, robust warehouse management software is employed to control product flows in and out of the store, as well as to stock location and shelf-life of products. Other health and safety best practices can be observed in many of the leading cold stores in the UAE.”

The ugly – but is there a monopoly?

Melvin reveals that there are a number of large operators in the cold store industry today, who compete for the same business, and quite often, have to discount storage or handling rates to win the demand. He elaborates: “So rather than looking at the industry as monopolistic, I think it is important to note that there are a few operators who have specialised in cold stores, and with the right investment and location, managed to grow substantially more than others. It is these market leaders who also adhere to best practice operations and define the cold store industry in the UAE.”

In Abusaa’s view, monopolistic practices are a fact of life, which are hard to eliminate. “Our job is to reduce its effect,” he says. “However, the dynamics of life is always against such practices, and the market always corrects itself.”

Abusaa, however, admits that as far as medium- and large-scale refrigeration jobs and cold stores are concerned, there is a monopoly, with limited choices in the GCC states, and even globally. “Unlike the HVAC industry, qualified refrigeration systems manufacturers and contractors are limited to a few number, nowadays, which is creating rich grounds for new highly professional smaller firms,” he reveals. Observing that the situation is even worse when it comes to consultancy, he says, “There are very limited number of highly qualified refrigeration consultancy houses in the GCC states.”

In conclusion

Abusaa believes that all issues and challenges pertaining to cold stores can be dealt with through proper education and awareness. He, however, admits, “Education and spreading knowledge takes time.”

Harking back to his initiative in executing a small refrigeration event in Abu Dhabi five years ago, he says: “The result was very encouraging, and it was the start of what is now called ‘Food Chain’ – a series of events by Climate Control Middle East. What I want to conclude is that we are addressing the issues quite well.”

(The writer is the Features Writer of Climate Control Middle East.)

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