Andrés Birlain
Expert Contributor

The Cold Chain of a Conformist Consumer

By Andrés Birlain | Wed, 12/01/2021 - 10:54

There is a very interesting concept in the retail world called "Shelf Life."

I remember when I was at Procter & Gamble we used to talk about the "First and Second Moment of Truth."

For those who have not heard of the term, the first refers to the marketing and commercial effort of companies to ensure that their products stand out the most on the shelf and hypnotize consumers to take them. The second moment is, in my opinion, the most important and begins once we try the product and decide to accept or reject it forever (literally).

I am going to concentrate on the second since, in terms of logistics and supply chain, it is the one that is directly affected by material handling and engineering.

But what happens when we ingest or use that product? Is it only the taste or the immediate sensation that matters?

For a Cold Chain specialist, the answer should be, no.

Think about everything that happens before your product reaches you. It is not an easy task. Imagine what must happen before an oncological product is supplied to you or a sandwich is ready for you to consume.

In this process, which we will call “The Supply Chain”, there are thousands of micro steps that must be executed and ensured. With perishable products (dry, cold and frozen) and drugs, their control and management are even more important. Why? Because temperature and handling conditions are key factors to ensure the veracity of the product to be consumed. For example, vaccines that are out of range (typically 2-8°C) lose their efficacy. They become placebos.

Cold Chain management must begin from the birth of the product. Look at it as the birth of humans: the environment where that living being will be born, grow, transform, and take advantage of it is vital for a decent health. For the industry, it is also important how we dress it (packing and packaging) and finally how it is handled, stored and distributed.

To speak of these last processes is to enter an endless maze of activities, such as logistical touches, commercial transfers, transportation, multiple warehouses, re-labeling and repackaging.

Here, I want to focus more significantly on the importance of the logistics industry in combination with its material handling. Logistics, in addition to satisfying our demand, needs to guarantee that the handling has been performed in perfect condition regardless if we as consumers can perceive the differences on the product or not.

Let's start with this data: one-quarter of the food produced in the world is wasted at some point in the chain. Only in Mexico, the amount totals 20 million tons of food, equivalent to MX$25 billion (US$1.1 billion), that could feed 7 million Mexicans.

In studies with and of consumers, there is a desire to accelerate the implementation of trends that lower these alarming figures. Some of these are: local purchases, composting programs, rescue of wasted food in different phases of the supply chain and conscious and measured buying.

But what about improving handling and transportation? Let us not ignore the obvious by blaming other causes instead. Typically, in Latin America, transportation control of perishable goods and medicines in companies operate at a basic level (complying just above the limit of regulations or in cases simulating or assuming compliance of public laws that by the way typically are non-updated or in accordance with present consumer needs). Of course, more control means more efforts and investments needed to improve the culture of organizations (companies will rather choose anonymity and ignorance instead of leadership and transparency regardless the moral and potential unexpected cost it will take for them at a certain time). In addition, more time, money, and initial effort is required to transform ourselves as super-reliable suppliers of those goods that we bring to consumers. For many, though, the sad reality is that it is better to “assume a cost per spoilage” and pass it onto our retail price to the consumer rather than taking full responsibility of our supply chain and control what it is needed to improve continuously.

Let's look at it from the consumers’ angle and what really matters to us. Maybe these three points can be used to raise awareness:

1. The waste of farmland represents 28 percent of the world’s surface (a little more than the surface of China and Mongolia).

2. 250km3 of water is wasted, an amount that could meet the needs of human consumption.

3. If agriculture and fishing expand, we will overexploit the world’s wild resources and certainly affect its biodiversity.

It all starts with being a conscientious consumer.

If we only saw the potential that exists in investing in technology, we would realize that, through better tools, we could drastically minimize the impact of waste and the waste that we generate logistically on perishable products and drugs. Thus, in effect, we will have fairer and more realty-based prices for everyone.

For the Latin American sector, it is important to understand that the cold chain is not a “desired” process. Rather, it is a compulsory and forced process that affects our very daily lives. For this reason, raising awareness among our social groups and demanding our conditions as consumers will allow those companies responsible for logistics and manufacturing management to do the same and invest not only to comply, but also to demonstrate the moral commitment they have to their customers and consumers and stand out for their excellence.

The same repercussions of a good cold chain driven by private investment will create such a level of public awareness that the country’s laws, regulations and public policies will be aligned with the wishes of its citizens.

The technology already exists. Understanding that as a consumer you have in your hands the history of the path traveled by your food, it should be elementary. If we do not have it, it is because we have settled for the treatment given us.

I conclude by inviting you to reflect on the following question: What do we want to consume? Nourishment or food? Drugs or placebos?

In a society where public initiative is lazy and bureaucratic in terms of health, where the private sector is a freeloader and compliant, consumers are left with the task of being agents of change through what they are willing to do personally and collectively. Criticizing and demanding after doing.

Photo by:   Andrés Birlain