An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That philosophy forms the underlying foundation for current food safety regulations in the United States.

In fact, refrigeration provides one of the most important preventative measures for protecting food products. At the same time, refrigeration presents a major challenge in the cold storage supply chain.

For manufacturers, distributors and retail venues, fluctuations in temperature by only a few degrees can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Recently, one food manufacturer suffered estimated losses in the range of $250,000 in a 1-week time period due to suspected temperature abuse.

The company also sustained damage to their brand identity. In an environment of instant information transfer, it didn't take long for websites, social media outlets and news organizations to spread word of the food safety issue.

Fortunately, the situation involved no documented cases of illness. Imagine the repercussions if consumers had experienced widespread infection requiring medical attention?! The legal ramifications could have been devastating.

Maintaining the cold chain from manufacturer to consumer

Sanitary facility designmust be prioritized during the design phase of any food processing, cold storage or food preparation facility project. For refrigerated products such as meats, ready-to-eat foods and produce, the risks due to temperature abuse could be great.

Industry research shows that a small rise in temperaturein cold storage can facilitate increases in pathogen growth. More pathogens mean a greater food safety risk to the entire production line. Beyond food safety issues, storing refrigerated foods at improper temperatures can adversely affect product quality and taste.

The refrigerated food supply chain, or cold chain, requires a great deal of planning and design to successfully implement.

Manufacturers must process and store product until shipped. Distributors find themselves dealing with cold storing product during transportation and on-the-dock redistribution. Risk of temperature abuse will arise again during unloading and storage at the retail outlet.

The smart facility designer must understand the intricacies of cold storage issues, and the threat they will pose to a functioning sanitary facility.

Reconciling costs, sanitary facility design and the cold chain

Every capital investment decision requires careful consideration of economic factors.

The current down economy may influence decisions toward lower cost alternatives. Executives and other stakeholders should take into account associated risks and not just up-front expenditures. Selection of less expensive materials and equipment could save on construction costs, but increase long-term operational expenses and threats related to food safety.

Project stakeholders should consider factors such as HACCP requirements, accepted Good Manufacturing Practices and standard operating procedures. Trade-offs of costs for quality doesn’t always play out financially as first-planned.

For example, wall or roofing panels made of cheaper porous surface materials could lead to pathogen growth. As a result, those panels may require more frequent cleaning with stronger, more expensive cleaning agents—possibly requiring production line downtime.

Cold storage doors on loading docks act as gatekeepers. Does the door close automatically? How well does the loading dock door control internal humidity on a rainy day? Do the cold storage wall panels offer air tightness to prevent moisture from accumulating in the building envelope?

Many issues exist that bolster risk for food safety failures. Cheaper alternatives can save on initial investment, only to cost more over the entire life cycle of the facility.

Sustainability issues and a food safe cold chain

The need for constant refrigeration creates extensive energy needs for food safe facilities.  Often times, secondary wants such as LEED certification or other sustainability goals are sacrificed for the sake of practicality.

The relationship between manufacturers and the U.S. Green Building Council, Washington, D.C.,has at times been contentious. Manufacturing and processing facilities rely heavily on energy and resource-intensive processes. Attaining even minimal levels of LEED certification can be arduous.

That’s why more and more manufacturers are instead focusing on net-zero energygoals. Net-zero creates a more justifiable argument for investment, as decreasing energy usage directly correlates to reduction in ongoing expenses.

Whether facility owners seek LEED certification, a path to a net-zero energy building or a combination of both, goals will need to be addressed early in the design phase.