IoT in the Food Chain / Cold Chain

Whitepaper: IoT in the Food Chain


The multi-billion-dollar food U.S. industry is evolving rapidly toward new technologies that enhance compliance with steepening FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) regulatory oversite, reduce loss to shrinkage and spoilage, improve efficiency on multiple levels and ultimately save populations from food-borne death and disease.

Advances in sensor and IoT (Internet of Things) technologies have spawned significant innovations across industry sectors. vXchnge estimates 20.4 Billion IoT devices will be in play by 2020, and many of these sensors will feed massive data warehouses. This mega leap forward in data collection and information management is now sweeping through the food industry, and it’s about time. The last time the FDA committed to a significant overhaul of food safety protocols was way back in 1932.

The FDA estimates that annually, 9.4 million U.S. citizens become ill due to the 31 possible pathogens and several unspecified agents in the food chain. Fifty-five thousand nine hundred sixty-one of those affected require hospitalization and on average, 1,351 die. According to experts who study pathogens, most food-borne illnesses and deaths are preventable through strict adherence to the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which builds upon concepts advanced in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), guidelines established by the International HACCP Alliance, established in 1994. FSMA  preventable based in scientific research and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attention to a wide variety of potential hazards. Advances in the detection and removal of pathogens are the underlying reason for new rules and heightened compliance.

This paper explores how breakthrough technologies reduce the amount and severity of pathogens, lengthen shelf-life of perishables, and increase profit for those businesses who depend upon processing and selling nearly everything we eat and drink.


The term Critical Control Points is widely used in regulatory compliance circles. Control points identify vulnerable areas in the food chain. Examples include food in transit on planes, trains, trucks and even on racks between storage and prep. Advances in sensor and data collection and analysis can now be used to monitor the conditions within which food is hauled and stored, from farm to table. Whether a business is involved in harvesting, transportation, food preparation, OCT sales or service, actionable operational intelligence on the environments where food exists is now possible, and it is deliverable in real time, 24/7/365, to nearly any device. Food managers that adopt these technologies can see, record, and review operating temperatures in all of their storage facilities and receive alerts when any appliance reaches temperatures out of range.

Food Storage Best Practices

Understanding factors like temperature and humidity is critical to food safety and preservation. One of the best resources for understanding optimum storage procedures for a wide variety of foodstuffs is located online at ( ). There, readers will find that Dry Foods do best when temperatures range between 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 59°F) storage of dry food should be located near receiving and close to the food preparation area. Food should always be off the floor by at least six inches, and stocking methods should facilitate removal and use of the older product before newer product.

Foods requiring refrigeration to delay decomposition should be stored at a constant room temperature of 4°C (39°F) or cooler, which is the recognized standard for safe refrigerated storage. Walk-in coolers, lowboys (kitchen coolers below counters and stoves), and most product displays should adhere to this standard. Storing food in refrigerators only part of the solution. Properly arranging food in the cooler is also essential. Products like raw meats and vegetables should always below cooked or ready-to-eat products so possible runoff from more easily contaminated food does not touch cooked edibles. Refrigerators should be maintained in good working order and cleaned regularly. Continuously monitor temperature, and inspections should be conducted annually to ensure that compressors and door seals are functioning as designed. As with larger storage units, shelving should be well vented to allow air to circulate and make cleaning efficient.

Dairy products do best from 2°C to 4°C (36° to 39°F).  Dairy products have a short shelf life. Knowing this, it is usually possible to have a fresh product delivered daily. Also, because dairy fat absorbs odors quickly, it is advised not to store dairy in a cooler with meat and vegetables.

Except for potatoes and bananas, items stored at slightly higher temperatures, most produce does best at between 2° to 4°C (36° to 39°F) – bananas 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 59°F). These temperatures help preserve freshness prevent rapid deterioration in the forms of shrinkage and spoilage. Softer fruits and vegetables should be utilized quickly as they don’t last long on a shelf, even in proper storage conditions. Damage from mold or other conditions spreads quickly to the neighboring product so all fruit should be inspected thoroughly before use. Unripened fruit does well in coolers. The fruit slowly ripens at between 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 59°F). Hardy vegetables, carrots are an example, last for weeks but lettuce will not. Also, moisture can be a problem. Moisture on vegetables tends to induce premature rot. Monitoring for excessive humidity is essential.

Full carcass meats should not rest unwrapped. Preserve them on hangers in a cooler so air can circulate freely. The proper temperature for carcass meet is 1°C to 3°C (34°C to 37°F). It is a best practice to lay absorbent material such as paper or cardboard under the meats. Keep boned meat no longer than three days. Use cuts on the day they are taken. Steaks, chops stewing and ground met should be covered in plastic or stainless-steel trays and kept at 2°C to 4°C (36°F to 39°F). Poultry and seafood do best when packed in ice and stored at –1°C to 2°C (30°C to 34°F). Use as quickly as possible. Again, store raw products below cooked products.

There are exceptions. Many believe that an aged steak, wet-aged or dry-aged, tastes better. The reason is that enzymes found naturally in the meat have a chance to enhance flavor. In these cases, commercial refrigeration is best because these appliances can ensure a constant temperature below 40°F. A few highly specialized processors supply high-end gourmet restaurants across the country. They process beef and other primal carcasses for up to five weeks maximizing tenderness and flavor. Home cooks should not attempt anything approaching this level of sophistication.

The Market

The financial value of the U.S. food sector is in the trillions of dollars, and the U.S. pharmaceutical markets move over $460 billion worth of perishable products into and out of temperature-controlled environments every year. Every item that enters the food chain in the U.S. is regulated. The FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) mandates that the FDA’ build an integrated national food safety system in partnership with federal, state, and local authorities. It’s a hugely expensive undertaking that is quickly being supported by technologists.

A widely quoted research project is detailed in the Economic Burden from Health Losses Due to Foodborne Illness in the United States by Robert L. Scharff of Ohio State University. The report says that 48 million new cases of food-related illness can be traced to 31 different food-borne pathogens every year. One in six Americans are affected, and the cost of tainted food approaches a staggering $77.7 billion annually with an additional $30 billion wasted and never consumed.

Monitoring of critical control points through the food and pharma chains will continue to intensify until the integrated national food safety system is complete. Research suggests that it will take nearly a decade to implement these new technology-driven best practices fully, but adoption rates are still slower than desired. Experts agree that the adoption of new technologies comes in waves. Consider the birth of the Internet or the conversion from flip phones to smartphones. Every new wave of innovation meets with a period of resistance, followed by a rush to get onboard. The food chain is nearing that tipping point, now. Soon, the 400,000 refrigerated intermodal ocean containers, 16,000 refrigerated railroad cars and over 550,000 refrigerated fleet trailers in business today will be monitored environments. Thirty-three thousand private and public cold storage facilities, 41,600 refrigerated distribution centers, and over 900,000 food service outlets ship truckloads of perishables in cargo vans every day, and they too will carry sensors and report in real time over mobile networks. 2M cartage options haul food to over a 1M U.S. food outlet destinations, all of which are required by law to monitor critical control points, and the early adopters for these enterprises already realize gains in food preservation and the monitoring of efficiencies in their storage appliances. The precise number of critical control points involved in the U.S. food chain is nearly incalculable, however, to summarize the challenge, only 20% of the guesstimated 200 million control points in the U.S. food chain are currently being monitored 24/7 by digital sensors. Add pharma to this number and the work to be done is staggering.

Well over 600,000 food outlets in the U.S. could benefit from new approaches. Half of these will consider an upgrade to their policies and procedures in the coming 24 months, and research indicates that close to 200,000 of these businesses will purchase the technology they are unfamiliar with using. Furthermore, the plethora of providers understand technology, but not food handling procedures. They can help monitor temperatures, but don’t have a solid understanding of the pathogens they intend to combat.

Deciding on Technology

Every business wants to improve the security and profitability of their supply chain, but most managers are unsure of how to proceed. The process sounds complicated to them, creating a sense of ambiguity. What they want is a comprehensive solution, but what they find online are components. Their current vendors lack the expertise to formulate these complete solutions, so progress is slow. In short, they don’t understand the value of the data provided, and cannot reach the ROI available to them through refined information. Of the 20% who early-on adopted new sensor-driven technologies, most do not fully utilize it to a maximum benefit. To them, these monitoring devices are just more convenient thermometers. To more savvy businesses, information is a pathway to profit.

Sensor networks can be wired or unwired and run on a variety of network platforms. Wiring is often expensive and disruptive, which means that most of the systems today are wireless. Data from sensors feed a gateway in-house, and the data gets relayed to a server attached to the Internet. Alternatively, there are sensors equipped with cellular components. Carriers support these individual components in the same way that our cell phones operate. In these cases, sensors send data through the carrier’s connection to the Internet where it picked up by the organization responsible for forwarding alerts, turning data into actionable intelligence, and conducting analysis. In every case, information moves to the device or devices used by food managers responsible for conditions within their operations.

Some of the more exciting advances include tabs that attach to packages. These inexpensive tabs record conditions while food is shipped from place to place. Conditions recorded throughout the journey become actionable information upon arrival. Digital records of the circumstances in which products travel allow recipients to accept or reject their shipment at the point of entry.

The scope of this paper does not allow for lists of providers, nor does it provide advice on one sensor manufacturer over the other. An overview of sensor types may be useful to the reader:

And here:

A Google search using the following criteria may also help: food sensor technology companies


Truck Fleets:

National Retailers Association Facts at a Glance:

This Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) report on the economic impact of the food industry:

This GMA report on trends in IT:

The GMA report reducing shrinkage and waste:

The Electronic Logging Device Rule, which introduces technology to the freight industry:

Additional Scholarly Articles

Integrating wireless sensor networks with statistical quality control to develop a cold chain system in food industries:

Global food security – Issues, challenges and technological solutions:

Sensors for product characterization and quality of specialty crops—A review

Radio-Frequency Identification Usage in Food Traceability

An innovative and low-cost gapless traceability system of fresh vegetable products using RF technologies and EPCglobal standard:

Achieving Sustainable Performance in a Data-driven Agriculture Supply Chain: A Review for Research and Applications: