Creating a safe and efficient cold chain

The Opticold project aims to ensure that refrigeration processes are compatible with sustainable development issues. Bringing together manufacturers and research laboratories and focusing on interdisciplinarity, this project in which Irstea is participating aims to develop a multiple-criteria analysis tool that takes into account the energy cost of running a cold chain: a unique approach.

Ensuring health security and food quality is a key priority for cold chains. For several years, the growing challenges of establishing more sustainable development, based particularly on reducing energy use, have led to rethink several industrial processes. The ANR Opticold project (2016-2019)1 was set up to answer this shifting paradigm and improve the sustainability of cold chains by optimizing the compromise between energy use (directly linked to equipment temperature), safety, quality and lifespan for refrigerated processed foods. To this end, project partners aim to perfect a multiple-criteria analysis method that will create a quality cold chain management support tool.

Building a global model of the cold chain

The project includes three stages and is based on monitoring three types of representative foods: biologically active food (ready-to-eat salads), raw inert food (fresh pie crust) and pasteurized food (fresh pasta), each manufactured in one of three partner factories. The stages are:

  • Study the refrigeration processes used in manufacturing plants and develop thermal and energy simulation models for these processes to integrate them in an overall model of the cold chain;
  • Study the microbiological and organoleptic quality of the three types of food and develop models that monitor quality in relation to temperature;
  • Combine both these models to create the multiple-criteria analysis tool.

"The tool can then be used to create various scenarios that directly evaluate the impact of a change in temperature, such as storing food at 2°C instead of 0°C, on product life span and quality and on the energy consumption required. The tool could then be used to identify key stages where a warmer temperature could be used, thereby reducing the energy consumption without increasing health risks or food wastage," notes Steven Duret, engineer at Irstea's GPAN (refrigeration process engineering) unit.

Irstea expertise central to Opticold

Specializing in modeling thermal and energy processes throughout the cold chain, including refrigerated transport, cold rooms, retail units and domestic refrigerators, scientists in the GPAN unit are actively working together on the project. They first focused on studying the first link in the chain: factories producing refrigerated products."Once we added this link, we were able to cover the whole chain. We therefore performed experiments within the three partner factories to recreate the thermal history of each product throughout the entire manufacturing process," specifies Evelyne Derens-Bertheau, engineer in the GPAN unit. Combined with electricity consumption readings, these temperature profiles will allow scientists to build thermal and energy models for factory scaled processes. Together with Anses2, they will then focus on combining the models and creating a multiple-criteria analysis.

If its efficiency and reliability are proven once the project ends (during 2019), the tool will allow industrial partners to benefit from recommendations for optimizing their procedures. Primarily, though, this is the first multiple-criteria analysis tool specifically designed for the food industry. For this reason, it could encourage real changes - and new regulations - in cold chain management.

Using NMR to analyze the quality of refrigerated salads

Specializing in the analysis of processed food products using NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) techniques, the MRI Food team from the OPAALE unit in Rennes has studied the impact of storage length and temperature on the cellular structure of salad leaves, one of the products targeted by the Opticold project. The data obtained should make it possible to optimize the amount of energy used at the storage stage.

For more information

1 - Partners: INRA Avignon (coordinator), Irstea (GPAN and OPAALE), Anses Laboratory for Food Safety, Aérial, French National Food Industry Association (Ania), Cerelia, Sodicru, Ateliers BIO de Provence, Clauger.
2 - French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety.