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The Basics

What is Cold Chain Monitoring and Why is it Important?

January 31, 2023
What is Cold Chain Monitoring and Why is it Important?
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What is Cold Chain Monitoring and Why is it Important?

A cold chain is a continuously temperature-controlled supply chain. Cold chains require consistent refrigeration through every step of the supply chain including manufacturing, transport, warehousing, and delivery. The objective of a cold chain is to preserve the quality and integrity of a product by maintaining it at an optimal low-temperature range throughout its lifecycle.

Multiple technologies are used to keep temperatures low in cold storage including refrigeration, gel packs, dry ice, and liquid nitrogen. These technologies work in concert with monitoring solutions to ensure that no damage occurs to items as a result of temperature excursion out-of-optimal ranges. Monitoring the cold chain is essential to extending shelf life and ensuring products are fresh and safe to use.

What Industries Use Cold Chains?

Cold chains are employed in a wide range of businesses and industries that require their products to be kept at a certain temperature from their manufacture or initial packaging until delivery. In some cases, fluctuating temperatures can make an item less desirable in the market and result in lost sales. In other instances, maintaining a consistently low temperature is essential to the product’s safety and usefulness when it reaches its final destination.

The largest use of cold chain technology is within the food and pharmaceutical industries. Many of the products produced or offered by companies in these industries require strict controls over temperature throughout the item’s lifecycle. Companies operating in these two market sectors use cold chain technology in different ways to achieve their goals.

The food industry

The primary concern of the food industry is to deliver its goods while they are still fresh so they retain their flavor, nutritional value and maximum shelf life. In some cases, this involves freezing the product and ensuring that it remains frozen until purchased by consumers. A quick look in the frozen food aisle in any American grocery store demonstrates how important the cold chain is to food producers and the public.

In some cases, such as transporting fresh berries, they need to be chilled but not frozen. Freezing berries destroys their texture and shortens their life when they defrost. While the temperature doesn’t need to be as cold as frozen fish or meat, a delicate balance between not too hot and not too cold is required. This can be challenging when goods are transported, as they often are, in large shipping containers where the temperature varies, with hot spots and cold spots building up in tightly packed containers.

Globalization and transportation have enabled people to enjoy fruits and vegetables grown in distant locations. This would not be possible without cold chains to preserve freshness as the items are transported from the field to our tables. Fruit picked in South America could not survive being transported to the United States without a consistent cold chain.

The pharmaceutical industry

The pharmaceutical industry also often needs to deliver its products under strict temperature controls or they lose their effectiveness and are useless to patients and consumers. This is true for vaccines and other types of medication that lose their efficacy when stored above optimal temperatures.

An illustrative example that highlights the importance of cold chains is the attempt to distribute COVID-19 vaccines throughout the world. Many areas of the world do not have the refrigerated storage capacity to keep the vaccines sufficiently cold. Local health services cannot provide the population with protection from the virus without facilities that can handle vaccine storage. This lack of cold storage capacity has resulted in inequalities regarding which populations have access to life saving vaccines.

What is Cold Chain Monitoring?

Cold chain monitoring is the use of technological solutions to track the temperature of items in a cold chain. Performing this temperature monitoring is essential to maintain the items' quality and ensure their freshness. Cold chain monitoring can employ Internet of Things (IoT) technology to continuously monitor the state of temperature-sensitive items in the cold chain.

The objective of monitoring is to ensure no damage occurs to the products due to issues encountered as they are transported and stored. Failure to maintain proper conditions puts people’s safety and health at risk. Issues with the cold chain can also affect customer loyalty and result in damage to a company's reputation and bottom line.

Why is Cold Chain Monitoring Important?

Cold chain monitoring is important because it guarantees an item has been transported and stored at the correct temperature and ensures the contents have not been spoiled due to incorrect handling. Monitoring must be consistent through all stages of a product’s lifecycle. Products damaged at any stage must be removed before they reach consumers.

In addition to keeping products fresh and viable from the manufacturer’s standpoint, cold chain monitoring is necessary to enforce the standards of regulatory bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These organizations have the public’s interest at heart and want to make sure that medications maintain their efficacy when shipped globally from pharmaceutical manufacturers to diverse populations.

Businesses that implement effective cold chain monitoring stand to enjoy multiple benefits. Monitoring real-time information about their products assists producers and transportation companies in the following ways.

  • Detecting product temperature fluctuations promptly enables companies to minimize the potential damage to products by addressing the underlying reasons for the problems. Corrective action may involve rerouting the products or repairing equipment throughout the cold chain.

  • Companies can employ a consolidated technology platform to track the condition of all products in the cold chain. Inventory management systems can generate alerts if optimal temperatures are not maintained so action can be taken before the product spoils or loses its effectiveness.

  • Predictive maintenance and regulatory compliance are promoted through the use of a viable and reliable cold chain monitoring solution. Potential issues can be identified and addressed before they result in damaged goods.

Ignorance is Bliss

One of the obstacles to the implementation of cold chain monitoring is that if a serious temperature excursion is recorded, this can “force the hand” of the accountable party, requiring them to dispose of the products that were compromised whilst in their care. This can be expensive. In some cases businesses prefer not to know if they have damaged products, especially if they are removed from the end customer. This is where either legislation or the power of the party that is answerable to the customer is required to mandate an end to end item level cold chain.

In some cases, like transporting vaccines such as the COVID mrNA vaccines that are very temperature sensitive, there can be strict regulations covering the bulk transportation of the drugs but no measurement and enforcement of the cold chain between the freezer used for transportation and the fridge in the clinic, and even more significantly between the fridge and the recipient of the vaccine.

The cause of shortfalls in vaccine efficacy are hard to isolate and attribute, and awareness of the cold chain solutions for item level (vaccine vial) tracking is poor. Until the cold chain is truly end to end, people will be exposed to the risks associated with a cold chain that is broken in key places.

Using Bluetooth Beacons for Cold Chain Monitoring

Multiple technologies can be used to perform cold chain monitoring. A promising option is to deploy temperature-sensing Bluetooth beacons that can communicate with supply-chain and inventory management systems via cloud-based applications running on handheld devices like a smartphone. Inexpensive Bluetooth Low Energy beacons have minimal power demands that make them an excellent choice for cold chain monitoring.

Wiliot’s IoT Pixels offer an innovative implementation of Bluetooth Low Energy beacons. The Pixels are small devices available in battery-powered units that harvest energy from ambient radio waves. IoT Pixels are temperature-sensitive and are distributed in rolls that can easily be attached to or embedded in virtually any product.

IoT Pixels can be used to monitor shipping containers or the products within them. They can also be attached to vaccine vials which can be monitored to ensure they are always kept at their optimal temperature. The pixels communicate with the Wiliot Cloud through Bluetooth enabled mobile device apps to give enterprises the information they need to maintain a cold chain and deliver goods safely to consumers. Wiliot’s IoT Pixels are a cost-effective method of effectively and efficiently monitoring the cold chain.