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Intelligent evolution

02 December 2019

In June this year the UK Cold Chain Federation was born. It emerged out of the Food Storage and Distribution Federation (FSDF). FSDF was a longstanding respected voice of temperature-controlled food logistics. In this article Chief Executive Shane Brennan, explains why they made the change and why everyone should care about the future of the cold chain.

In July 2018, I was privileged to take on the leadership role at our Federation. With no background in logistics, I set out on the road to meet many of the key players that run the businesses that together ensure that our fresh and frozen food gets from farm to fork. I had lots of questions, from the very basic ones about how this industry works to fundamental questions about where we are heading. 

I’ll be honest I thought I was embarking on a job that was all about Brexit. That is where I had come from after all, having spent 4 years, being the voice of farmers and landowners trying to make sense of what exiting the EU meant for domestic food production. However, whilst the past year has seen plenty of activity and drama in that regard, it became clear to me quickly that it wasn’t the short-term disruptions of getting through Brexit that dominated the thinking of my new members. 

The issues that dominated their thinking were about how to adapt to and harness the power of the shifting tectonic plates that underpin our industry. There are three of them.

The first is the changing food market that the industry serves. Markets always change, and the food industry has always been dynamic. But even allowing for that, those at the epicentre feel as though this time the changes going on are fundamental. Population growth and changing demographics are fuelling demand across retail. Innovation and investment in brands and retail environments are achieving growth that outpaces the market, especially in frozen food. Consumer demand for product is fuelling demand for space and logistics services across the cold chain.  

The second is the disruption taking place within logistics itself. Game changing innovations are becoming mainstream from automated systems and sophisticated robotics, to next generation digitisation and artificial intelligence. Although within the cold chain itself these operations have not reached as far as they have in other supply chains, the signs are there. With continued squeeze on labour availability and increasingly sophisticated distribution requirements, the pace of investment is likely to accelerate rather than slow.

The third stands out above the others in the food chain and this is the realities of operating in a market that is regulated to meet the growing demands of mitigating and adapting to climate change. Brexit has been a force for uncertainty and division in many ways, but perhaps its most maleficent impact has been on the extent to which it has pushed out focus on the impact of changing national and global policies to tackle climate change. It is these, far more than Brexit, that will shape the medium- and long-term future of our industry.

If our relaunch has one overriding purpose it is to take on the challenges of sustainability more directly. To be a better, clearer, voice for the positive impact that effective cold chain has in defending us all from the causes and effects of climate change. But also, to be an effective forum for the industry to come together to face up to the challenges we have to confront and find shared solutions. 

Cold chain is a defence against climate change because it is the single most important defence against food waste. Globally we throw away from than 1/3rd of the food we produce (UN Stats), in the developed world do an effective job of getting food from the farm to fork, but as consumers we throw far too much away. In the developing world, its almost the exact opposite. In some cases like in sub Saharan Africa 80% of the food grown perishes before it reaches the people that need it. 

Globally our job is to put in the cold chain logistics we need to stop wasting food, to combat hunger and end the wasteful use of land producing new food to replace food already produced but allowed to go to waste. Although its not totally that simple, firstly if the developing world was to put in the cold chain they need in the same way we have done (with the same buildings, refrigeration systems and vehicles) then the carbon impact of that chain would simply remove one problem to create another of at least equal size. 

In the UK our job is to make our cold chain more efficient. To lead the world in development of cleaner technologies, to design smarter more efficient systems and to educate our consumers about the importance of valuing the cold chain. We are sitting on our timebomb of outdated infrastructure, limited willingness or ability to invest and increasing political and policy pressure to regulate our way out of problems like poor air quality caused by vehicle emissions.

The challenge of the Cold Chain Federation is to lead our industry as we seek out these solutions, how we adapt to our changing society and our changing food market. To harness the power of innovation in technology in our supply chain to deliver the growth we need in a way that neutralises (and ideally decreases) our impact on our climate. And to do so in a way that is profitable, sustainable and generates the high value jobs that we need.

It’s been an exciting journey through the last year of change in our federation, but it is very much the beginning of a new mission that I am confident will see the UK cold chain leading the way in a rapidly changing word.