For online supermarkets and grocery delivery stores, the cold chain process is fundamental in preserving the quality of fresh, frozen and chilled products. Known for their wide selection of French groceries, Le Petit Depot goes the extra mile for it, from when the item is imported straight from France, until it arrives at your doorstep. To find out more, we turn to Thomas Wong, Operations Team Leader at Le Petit Depot, who supervises all the warehouse and logistic operations, and Frédéric Douvillé, co-founder of the French supermarket in Singapore.
Why is it essential to preserve the cold chain logistics for food products?
Thomas: First, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves about the bacteria that can be found on food items. Some bacteria can be useful, such as the ones added to yoghurts and cheeses for the products to ferment. Others, however, are responsible for product alteration, leading to the deterioration of a food item. And the last kind of bacteria is pathogenic, which can lead to serious diseases like salmonella and staphylococcus.
When frozen or chilled products are placed in inadequate temperatures, bacteria grows exponentially. And it only takes a few hours for a fresh product left at room temperature, such as milk or fish, to get spoiled. That means a single break in the cold chain can irreversibly damage a food product. All the subsequent steps to bring it from its place of origin to the hands of the consumers are then completely in vain.
As the name implies, the cold chain is a logistics management process for handling products that require a specific range of temperature to be strictly followed. It’s a complex process; it involves performing a chain of tasks in a temperature-controlled environment from production to consumer, and specifically for us during the import, storage, picking, packing, last mile grocery delivery and handover to customers. Failure to keep to the cold-chain process can result in serious consequences, from the reduction of the shelf life of a product, to its complete spoilage, potentially making it a health hazard.
What standards must be respected to preserve the cold chain?
Thomas: Temperature standards are established by product manufacturers to avoid an excessive proliferation of bacteria and to guarantee the shelf life of products. While frozen items are generally kept within -15 and -18 degrees in a home freezer, as professionals in the food industry we store our products between -20 and -22 degrees. It guarantees that our products are perfectly safe and keep their full organoleptic properties as per the shelf life indicated by the manufacturer. Our fresh items, which are generally kept between 4 to 8 degrees in a conventional chiller, are stored at 2 to 4 degrees.
How do you preserve the cold chain during transportation?
Thomas: Le Petit Depot works only with trusted freight forwarders to handle our French groceries. This is the first guarantee to make sure our products are perfectly handled during their long journey from France. In 2018, we relocated and built a top-class logistics platform within the Senoko Food-Hub. Our platform and cold-chain processes have garnered interest from some key professionals in the food and e-commerce industry.
When our frozen containers arrive, the pallets are directly transferred through an unstuffing tunnel to our cold room where they are stored between -20 and -22 degrees. The picking and packing of all frozen products is strictly performed within this cold room. Products are picked from the pallets or from the shelves and placed inside a styrofoam box. Each box has previously been filled with 4kg of cold plates; these add an additional temperature protection layer of -22 degrees within the box. (They act as a sort of ice box in the box.) The styrofoam box itself is placed in an insulated delivery bag and the products are subsequently delivered by our fleet of fully refrigerated trucks set to -15 degrees. Find out more about our packing process here.
We also place electronic data-loggers within the styrofoam boxes with the support of customers who volunteer to have their parcel journey data logged. This monitoring program allows us to probe the stability of the process and correct any minor deviations at early stages.
As far as the handover of the products is concerned, the products won’t exit the box until it reaches the customer’s doorstep. We make sure our grocery delivery guys open the box and place the products at the doorstep in front of our customers so they can transfer them immediately to their own freezer.
How does it work for chilled rather than frozen goods?
Thomas: The chilled process is very similar to the frozen process. Once our products arrive at Changi Airport, they are directly transferred to the cold room. Four engines constantly run in our cold room to make sure the temperature is 2 to 4 degrees. This temperature is constantly monitored through a sensor system that detects any abnormality. Once a product enters the chiller, it won’t go out until it’s sold, picked and packed; only then is it transferred to the grocery delivery truck. Our vegetables are also packed in styrofoam boxes to ensure that they’re not damaged in the truck, which is set at -15 degrees. We feel that, with all this in place, we clearly surpass others in term of attention to products, cold-chain management and food-safety standards.
What are the challenges related to respecting the cold chain?
Frédéric: You can imagine how demanding the process is in terms of infrastructure. For our staff (most of whom were born in the tropics!), the extreme working conditions can be harsh. They’re spending days in cold rooms with cold air blowing at -22 degrees; Singapore, meanwhile, has a steady climate of around 28 degrees. So, we’re talking about experiencing a thermal range of 50 degrees!
Cost-wise, some figures are interesting to keep in mind to put into perspective the market price of most imported products, including French groceries. When it comes to chilled products (especially French groceries like dairy products), the cost of airfreighting 1kg of Fromage blanc cheese is 1.59 times the cost of the product itself! (It was actually 1.15 times pre-COVID, and reached 2.85 times in April 2020). For frozen operations, the cost of transport and local storage can sometimes be twice the cost of the product itself; this especially true of bulky items. But Le Petit Depot is financially committed to its cold-chain offer and has been absorbing most of the market fluctuations over the years – even in the pandemic.
What are Singapore’s cold chain requirements? Are they respected by other market players?
Frédéric: We were actually very surprised to find out that not all players consider the cold chain a top priority. For example, some main online grocer stores won’t hesitate to deliver frozen products in non-refrigerated trucks.
When supposedly frozen items partially defrost during transportation, this can pose a major health risk through microbiological growth. It gets even worse with the “uberisation” of delivery; this involves big and small online grocers making use of pools of private cars and vans to deliver produce. As logistics professionals, we really look at this evolution with a sceptical eye. We hope that there will be some form of system put in place to impose compulsory registration on refrigerated delivery fleets and operators. That would help to bring the standard to where we believe it should be, in the interest of consumer safety.
A customer should always ask one simple question: “Does my online grocer pay special attention to the cold chain management process until my order reaches my doorstep?” Le Petit Depot takes the cold chain management process very seriously, as a responsibility towards your health.
Any upcoming plans you’re excited about?
Frédéric: Le Petit Depot has just introduced more than 500 products from Maison Thiriet, one of the leading brands for made-in-France frozen products. Since 1902, the family business has been working tirelessly to promote good eating habits through its high quality food products.
Our cold chain standard has been a key element for Maison Thiriet to engage with us. This collaboration allows us to offer the largest selection of top quality French groceries, along with one of the best grocery delivery services that currently exist in the Singaporean market.
Discover more French groceries and produce at French supermarket Le Petit Depot’s website, lepetitdepot.com.
Original article by lepetitjournal.com, translated and adapted in English for Expat Living readers.
Now that you know the importance of cold chain logistics for grocery delivery, check out more here.