Weaknesses in the cold chain inside the store are bad enough. But retailers know that problems with temperature control can, and often do, start before the product makes it to the case.
Even 10 minutes out of that cold chain can mean a breakdown in product quality. Value-added produce left out on the warehouse loading dock, or sitting in the store's back room, quickly begins to deteriorate, retailers said.
David Coons, head produce buyer for Fry's Food Stores, Phoenix, noted that distribution of precut products can easily create breaks in the cold chain, and is a hard problem to work around.
"During the transportation of the product, you have your unloadings and reloadings," where temperature control can be compromised, he explained. As far as Coons is concerned, direct store delivery would be optimal, but processors do not have extensive enough distribution systems to deliver to stores. "The best scenario would be to take it directly from the processor to the store, but we know that isn't possible," he said.
The prospect of one more direct delivery coming through the back doors would also frequently add to the headaches faced by retailers at the store level, particularly since precut produce deliveries would need to be made almost daily, Coons said. Retailers, meanwhile, continue to struggle with maintaining the correct temperature for many types of produce in their storage facilities. The good news is that many operators are upgrading their cold storage capability. While newer warehouses are likely to have been equipped with various rooms that offer distinct temperature "zones," some older ones are less likely to be so sophisticated.
The cold chain capabilities can even vary within a depot.
"Most warehouses have no problem at receiving. We receive at 38 to 40 degrees [Fahrenheit]," commented Dick Spezzano, vice president of produce and floral for Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif. However, temperatures in the produce selection room, where produce is selected for delivery to individual stores, may be higher, he added. Vons' selection room temperature typically runs about 53 degrees because colder temperatures will damage bananas and tomatoes, he said.
Some newer warehouses, however, are addressing the dilemma by segmenting temperature zones for various types of produce in both the storage and selection areas.
Coons of Fry's Food Stores said that updating warehouses with additional rooms offering different temperature zones is a priority for his company. "Our warehouse is old . . . we are hoping to update it," he noted. "You want to maintain the [temperature] integrity throughout."
No matter how good the warehouse refrigeration may be, however, it's useless if the product isn't moved there immediately, noted Robert Hunter, supervisor for Randall Stores, Mitchell, S.D.
"Sometimes that stuff is sitting on the dock and takes a while to get into the coolers," he said. The result is one more broken chain.