Depending on the size, one shipment of pharmaceutical products could cost a company anywhere from $150,000 to millions of dollars if transportation temperatures are not maintained. Obviously, profits are one immediate risk of an improperly managed cold chain. Additionally, supply chain challenges that are specific to temperature sensitive goods can lead to serious quality and safety concerns too. Shippers can help mitigate these added risks by customizing supply chain best practices to meet the complexity of cold chains.

When transporting fresh produce, pharmaceuticals, floral, frozen foods, and other temperature sensitive products, speed to market is critical. Creating an efficient, effective cold chain starts when all key stakeholders—shippers, carriers, vendors, providers, etc.—understand the importance of these six best practices.

Work with temperature controlled specialists

Logistics is all about behind the scenes planning. Even before a carrier picks up a shipment, countless people are working to ensure its safe transportation—especially for temperature sensitive goods. What many fail to realize is there is a difference between supply chain expertise and cold chain expertise. This is even more important if the commodities fall under the sanitary transportation ruling.

Trained and experienced temperature controlled specialists are better able to understand all the variables and regulations of a cold chain to keep freight secure from beginning to end. Shippers that have temperature sensitive shipments regularly and rely on these kinds of experts—whether as an internal resource or an external vendor—will find themselves far ahead of competitors that don’t.

All supply chains require some level of understanding between shipper and carrier. The rigorous specifications of cold chains tend to require an even stronger shipper/carrier relationship. Look for specialists who recognize ways to hone this relationship. Balancing unattractive load qualities (e.g., multi-pick, multi-stop loads) with more strategic initiatives (e.g., backhaul optimization) so both carriers and shippers benefit is a good place to start.

Find the right freight services

Today’s global supply chains often require coordination across multiple types of transportation—road, ocean, air, and rail. Each option comes with unique factors to consider, and due to the sensitive nature of goods, the lowest price option or fastest option might not always make the most sense.

Remember, some products—like those with higher price points—can benefit from a more expensive, yet faster shipping option. Balance the pros, cons, and price of each transportation service for each shipment:

Air Shipping

  • Speed to market can reduce spoilage
  • Temperature is difficult to maintain
  • Higher cost can be offset by speed to market

Ocean Shipping

  • Cost effective for long distances
  • Incurs extended and dynamic transit times
  • Requires generators or diesel fuel

Over the Road

  • Flexible locations
  • Advanced technology available
  • Variable capacity availability

Rail Shipping

  • Efficient for long distances
  • Defined transportation corridors
  • Less suitable for inflexible timelines

After selecting the right freight service, the real value again comes by considering the needs of carriers. If a shipper transports full truckloads of cheese to local retailers, they may be able to arrange for the carrier to move empty cartons on the backhaul. This solution, not only solves the shipper’s reverse logistics challenge, it may also reduce transportation costs now that the carrier has eliminated otherwise empty miles.

Make setting expectations a priority 

When all stakeholders have clear expectations set for their role, and can know what to expect from others they’re working with, risks are eliminated and problem resolution speeds up. No matter how mundane, bring every detail to the table—from acceptable temperature ranges and continuous temperature vs. cycle settings to proper seals, contingency plans, equipment expectations, along with processes for returns and rejections. Be sure to include all obligations as set forth under the sanitary transportation ruling as applicable.

Less than truckload shipments are particularly at risk when expectations are not clearly defined. Every time a temperature controlled shipment stops moving or a container is opened, the products inside are put at risk for damage.

For example, a full ocean container of apples from Chile is unloaded in Philadelphia, PA, moved to a local cold storage facility and ultimately transported via LTL to retailers around the country. Every time the apples are loaded and unloaded from shipping container to trailer, and every stop the truck makes, increases the risk of decay if temperatures are not consistently maintained.

Set checks and balances when loading and unloading

Moving products from one location to a trailer (and vice versa) can be the most critical and complex time in a cold chain. Beyond maintaining the temperature of the truck and warehouse, it’s important to also consider the temperature of the loading dock, outdoor weather conditions, and even the time it takes to load and unload items.

Both the shipper and carrier should have specific obligations during loading and unloading. As long as it’s not in contrast with the sanitary transportation ruling obligations, checking the work of the other party can help mitigate risks farther down the road. Specific areas to review include:

Confirming product temperature prior to loading. 

Most refrigeration units do not cool products, but rather maintain a set temperature. Ensuring all pallets or shipments are properly cooled prior to loading can eliminate many issues later on. Prior to accepting loads, carriers should confirm the temperature—especially on items deep within a pallet.

Inspecting condition of equipment prior to loading

Together, a thorough inspection by both the shipper and carrier is a solid practice to implement. Look for tears in chutes that may prevent consistent temperatures, confirm correct positioning of trailer vents for the product to be moved, even make note of odors and other factors that may contaminate fresh goods or impact the vehicle.

Checking for proper container air flow during and after loading

How cases are stacked on a pallet and pallet positions in a trailer can affect air flow. By working together, shippers and carriers can plan for sufficient air movement between pallets, walls, air chutes, ceiling, and floor.

Any exceptions noted during pickup can be critical to understanding—or eliminating—the cause of problems that may arise prior to or during delivery.

Balance cost and technology

Just like the rest of the world, technology in the temperature controlled space is rapidly improving. However, the latest technology often comes with a high price tag. Be sure to balance the cost effectiveness with the added technological advantages—not all products warrant the added expense of state of the art technology.

Create standard operating procedures

When it comes to maintaining a cold chain, standard operating procedures (SOPs) are even more important to mitigate risks and eliminate gaps. Be sure to encompass topics like proper packaging techniques, the process for late pickups or deliveries, and handling equipment problems. SOPs can be as simple or detailed as necessary, but all should take applicable regulations into account and clearly include at least three basic points:

  • Who is responsible
  • What needs to happen
  • How checks and balances occur

Achieving long-term temperature controlled success

Collaboration is key to overcoming many of the risks associated with cold chains. Establishing solid processes that all parties understand, believe in, and adhere to is the first step to succeeding in today’s highly competitive market.


Mark Petersen, Director of Global Sourcing at C.H. Robinson



Read C.H. Robinson’s white paper, Maintain the Cold Chain: Six Supply Chain Best Practices for Temperature Sensitive Freight, to learn more about improving your temperature controlled transportation strategy.