Improving food preservation in Canada’s distribution chain

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According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), a third of the world’s food is lost each year. In Canada, this proportion reaches 40% annually. Food waste reduction strategies were proposed in 2015 at a G20 meeting that Canada attended.

Since then, a team of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientists in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, have intensified their research on the issue. In a huge country where the climate can vary between -30 C in winter and +30 C in summer, the preservation of perishable foodstuffs through food distribution networks poses many challenges. Sébastien Villeneuve, PhD, and Louis Sasseville, PhD, developed a series of models to simulate cold chains in food distribution networks across the country and identified areas for possible improvement.

The cold chain

The “cold chain” refers to the multiple steps and rules of refrigeration that must be followed to ensure food is kept at optimum storage temperature during transport and storage. Various strategies for managing this chain can slow the deterioration of food between the time it leaves a farm or processing company and the time it arrives at grocery stores for sale to consumers.

In Canada, the winter and summer seasons are problematic. In summer, food is likely to be exposed to excessively high ambient temperatures. In winter, frost should be avoided to protect cold-sensitive foods. We also note that the off-seasons have an increasing impact on production (for example late or early frosts, spring drought). A succession of inadequate temperatures of varying durations leads to food waste. For example, if boxes of fruit or meat are left repeatedly and/or too long outside the refrigerated trucks. The food is wilted and sometimes even contaminated with pathogenic bacteria that have multiplied during transport.

Weaknesses in cold chains have a much greater impact on the hundreds of isolated communities in Canada’s North, often Indigenous or Inuit communities, which experience significant food security issues.

Improving refrigeration conditions where they pose the greatest risk requires being able to identify weak links in the land and air pathways that food takes (including ice pathways in the North) along the long production chain, processing, transportation, storage and retail.

Simulation models

AAFC scientists have recently developed low-cost small, medium and large scale models to simulate various cold chain conditions. Their forecasting models, based on food transport databases, can:

  • simulate numerous transport and storage parameters;
  • predict what will not work; and
  • have an impact long before food waste or contamination poses a health risk.

“A break in the cold chain of just a few hours combined with the effects of transport vibrations or depressurization at altitude can lead to a reduction in the shelf life of a food of several days or even weeks,” said Sébastien Villeneuve, scientist in food process engineering. , AAFC.

“By modeling the temperature, relative humidity, vibration and altitude conditions encountered throughout the distribution chain, we can identify the best practices for BC cherries or blueberries to arrive fresh and foods in Ontario grocery stores,” added Louis Sasseville, Food Systems Modeling Researcher, AAFC. .

When testing of these models is complete, weaknesses in Canada’s cold chain management systems can be corrected, food waste reduced, and food safety and security improved. Ultimately, resources such as water, land, energy, labor and capital will no longer be wasted in vain.

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