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Mind the gap!

Is a lackadaisical approach to designing and operating cold stores and transport refrigeration equipment a threat to food safety? What initiatives have been implemented to address the gaps in the cold chain and what more remains to be done? Hannah Jo Uy draws key insights from discussions during the 9th edition of Food Chain (the Middle East Food Safety and Cold Chain Conference)…

| | Feb 10, 2019 | 3:25 pm
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Richard Sprenger, Chairman and Food Safety expert, Highfield Group

What most consumers see as appetising food, specialists such as Richard Sprenger, Chairman and Food Safety expert, Highfield Group, view as potential carriers of salmonella, E. coli and other microorganisms, if not maintained at the right temperature. This is the grave importance stakeholders give to cold chain, a vital stronghold protecting the health and wellbeing of the general public by ensuring food is stored and transported in a hygienic manner. This is especially true for a country like the United Arab Emirates, which experiences high-ambient conditions for a larger part of the year, and which imports 90% of its food. Cold chain was the context of discussions at the 9th edition of Food Chain, also known as the Middle East Food Safety and Cold Chain Conference, on January 21 in Dubai.

Cowboy consultants and Contractors
Given the critical importance of cold chain, Suraj Parakat, Hygiene Manager, Lulu Group International, said the financial investment needed to ensure temperature control is an aspect of food safety that consumers often don’t see, and also where food industry stakeholders tend to cut corners. Bjorn Ostbye, Project Development Manager, Lulu Group International, said the cost-centric thinking plaguing the food industry leads to bad practices in cold store design and operation. Stakeholders, he added, often end up going for the cheapest quotations and that “there is a dispute between technical quality and financial acceptance”.

The bad practices have to do with a lack of engineering- and general project-related expertise in the market, said Yiannis Bessiris, General Manager, Advanced Materials META, Honeywell. He bemoaned the fact that total cost of ownership is rarely taken into consideration in the evaluation and selection of technology, as a result of which capex is an obsession over opex and over ensuring reliability of the cold chain. Abdul Rashid, Chief Executive Officer, Pulseberry Health Consultants, agreed with Bessiris on the lack of proper expertise. “In the marketplace, there are a lot of cowboys parading themselves as consultants in food safety or engineering,” he said. “You have to choose a consultant with relative knowledge and experience to advise accordingly.”

Providing an example, Rashid said most contractors specify a three mm epoxy floor in units, which will deteriorate at minus 18 degrees C, adding that the traffic of loaded trolleys will also cause the epoxy flooring to break down in 6-9 months. “All it requires is someone to think of six mm epoxy flooring and you have something that will last 2-6 years,” he said, underlining how trained consultants not only ensure integrity of operations but also offer better return on investment and help reduce operating cost. Additionally, Rashid said, there is a need to link the technical expertise of the mechanical engineering team with basic principles of food safety.

Brian Suggitt, Managing Director, Systemair, and, Chairman, Eurovent Middle East, highlighted the value cold storage and refrigeration consultants can provide over general consultants. “If we can improve quality and expertise,” he said, “then you can start bringing in standards and regulations. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. We have a picture but some of the pieces are missing.”

Ostbye highlighted another challenge facing the industry – that of the subpar quality and lack of technical standards related to the installation of refrigeration equipment. Mahmoud Qadri, District Maintenance Manager, Carrefour UAE, Majid Al Futtaim Retail, also called for the need for technical standards in relation to installing equipment. However, he added, installing in itself is not enough. He said there is a need for service providers to provide continuous assessment of installed systems, keeping in mind energy performance and food safety, and to offer recommendations for retrofits that match existing technology available in the market.

Similar issues plague the transport refrigeration sector, with Ajay Katyal, Marketing Manager, Honeywell, pointing out that there are also a lot of “cowboys on the road”. Adding to the statement, Prakash Krishnamoorthy, Independent Transport Refrigeration Expert, said that the entry and presence of old and used trailers from Europe, combined with the practice of overloading, serve as “the deadliest cocktail in the region”. In addition to stakeholders cutting corners in equipment, sacrificing the quality of the box (body of the truck), Krishnamoorthy said that the lack of temperature monitoring in the transport refrigeration sector is a critical issue.

Rashid, speaking on cold stores, said he sees the same problem, where stakeholders are focused on manual monitoring in cold stores, typically 3-4 times daily, in compliance with legal requirements. There is a need to monitor continuously to gather actionable insight to enhance operations, he added, saying that access to information, such as the defrosting cycle, helps ensure proper maintenance of equipment.

For Abdessamad Limamy, Head of Quality Food and Non Food, Risk and Compliance – Carrefour UAE, Majid Al Futtaim Retail, in view of the region’s climate, monitoring has to be complemented by the implementation of a reliable system that would address even the smallest temperature deviations immediately, as it would otherwise have a big impact on food quality. “If the system fails, it is too late to react,” he said, stressing that stakeholders must be proactive in analysing data. Limamy also highlighted the collaborative approach in Carrefour towards developing an appropriate system that would lay the foundation for a predictive model that can anticipate equipment failure. His colleague in engineering, Qadri, added that the company is gathering in-house data, taking into account not only temperature but also information related to the compressor and overall humidity.

Krishnamoorthy commended the initiatives of hypermarkets like Carrefour in this regard, particularly their efforts at insisting suppliers maintain the required temperature in food being delivered. “A lot of big hotels are also doing this,” he said. “But is that followed across? Probably the answer today is ‘no’.” Mozzamil Z Aissa, Supply Chain Manager, Al Rawabi Dairy Company, said that while stringent monitoring is feasible for big hypermarkets, his concern as a local manufacturer is with regard to the thousands of small shops that remain largely unmonitored and unregulated by authorities.

Potential antidotes

To address the gaps, Ostbye said, there is a need to think outside the box. For Krishnamoorthy, the antidote is a combination of technology, training and a management willing to implement standards, all of which will lead to a consensus that will ensure proper maintenance of the cold chain. Sprenger dialled in on the contribution of managers in this regard, saying that “there is no point in having training on the frequency of door openings, if they are put in situations where they don’t have an alternative but to do that”. Aissa was in agreement, adding that these issues prompted Al Rawabi’s management to organise training with internal and external personnel and closely monitor existing culture. “It is not only a matter of closing doors and maintaining temperature,” he said. “A lot of activity goes beyond that. In this part of the world, 40 or 50 degrees C, in a matter of seconds the temperature can change inside. I can’t ask the salesman to open the door only three times when he delivers 35 times a day. But it’s the way he opens the door that matters to me – that is culture.” Krishnamoorthy said that he believes that the answer, then, lies, in proper training, advocating for stakeholders to inform and educate customers and operators on best practices. Ostbye also recommended a possible certification scheme for refrigeration installers or, perhaps, a grading system that will provide transparency on the quality of service being offered by one company over another.

Fabian Bahlmann, General Manager, Schmitz Cargobull Middle East, believed that technology could also have a hand at improving culture, pointing to smart functionalities of trailers, such as geo-logging, which allows fleet managers to monitor if doors are opened and closed at the appropriate loading bays and timings. Such transparency, he said, can impact culture, if fleet managers opt to use the data gathered to set up performance-related remuneration to reward personnel for their efforts to maintain temperature levels and differentiate between good and bad practices.

Sprenger weighed in to add that Dubai Municipality’s Food Watch Programme could potentially play an important role in this regard by monitoring and drawing comparisons on the performance of contractors or units to incentivise best practice and ensure there are consultants experienced in food safety, to whom people can go for advice.

Krishnamoorthy said that legislation perhaps would the best way to kick-start the management to ensure the rest of the chain follows. Although Dubai Municipality’s Food Watch programme is capturing all data points needed, he said, it could go beyond the make and brand of vehicle by proposing the implementation of international standards similar to ATP in Europe. This, he said, would include specifications related to the box, temperature and follow-up evaluations and tests after six years to ensure the box is still fit to do its job and has not been degraded. In terms of regional applications, Krishnamoorthy said that while ATP is certified at 30 degrees C, the region sees 50 degrees C as a norm and that capacity would require more of what would work in Europe. “Hopefully, Food Watch can bridge this gap,” he added.

A call for action

Bobby Krishna T M, Senior Specialist, Food Permits and Applied Nutrition Section, Dubai Municipality, stressed that such aspects of the Food Watch programme continue to be a work in progress and that regulation must prioritise certain data points. “First, the Municipality must identify existing players in the market,” he said. “We don’t even know who is building it.” Krishna also underlined the importance of continuous dialogue by pointing to the decision to take into account the manufacturing year of the transport vehicle in the platform to be an offshoot of discussions during the last Food Chain conference. “One of the things we see changing is how regulation is being framed,” he said. “With better data, [there is] far better legislation.”

Ostbye stressed that the industry as a whole must not rest on its laurels. “We cannot wait for the Municipality to be educated,” he said. “We are responsible for feeding the Municipality with technical solutions.” Bahlmann, in agreement, said manufacturers can also take on the role of consultants in this regard, offering recommendations based on experience on best practices internationally and in the region, stressing the importance of a follow-up mechanism. Markus Lattner, Managing Director, Eurovent Middle East, shared a similar opinion, inviting stakeholders to join the industry association’s working group on cold storage and refrigeration, highlighting the value-added expertise manufacturers can share in relation to food safety and energy efficiency. “I believe it’s important for the industry to sit together and discuss what we can do in cooperation with the authorities,” he said.
Touching on the possibility of a federal framework, Krishna said discussions can benefit not only the Municipality but also Gulf standards as a whole. “We need to start first,” he said. “A lot of standards are linked. There has to be movement from within Dubai. What we can do is show evidence certain things are working and certain things are not working. All these discussions have to lead to those standards.”

As Sheikh Dr Majid Sultan Al Qassimi (see related interview), Director, Animal Development and Health Department, UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, said during the Keynote Address he gave at the conference: “Food safety is the responsibility of everyone in the industry, and we are only as strong as our weakest link. We need to pick each other up to expect a minimum standard.”


Hannah Jo Uy is Assistant Editor at Climate Control Middle East magazine. She may be contacted at hannah@cpi-industry.com.

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