$5.2 billion dollars of food is thrown away every year in Australia, and 5.4 million cases of gastroenteritis are reported. One major cause of this is poor cold food chain management, particularly in refrigerated transport. 

The Cold Chain 

The cold chain is every person and business involved in moving chilled and frozen food products. This includes manufacturers, retailers, servers, distributors and those in storage and refrigerated transport.  

Cold Chain Guidelines 

The Australian Cold Chain Guidelines provide recommendations on best practices in the cold chain. These are guidelines only and do not override or substitute any legislation or compliance agreements.  They set out the cold chain conditions. 

Cold Chain Conditions 

The main cold chain conditions are set out in three rules which we cover below. 

  • Never warmer than rule 
  • Maximum out of refrigeration rule 
  • First expiry first out rule (FEFO) 

The manufacturer is responsible for setting and clearly indicating these rules on the packaging of their products. They must also provide documentation and communicate the rules to all stages of the cold chain.  

All stages in the cold chain need to keep records of: 

  • Temperature goods are received at, 
  • Time goods are out of refrigeration for, 
  • Temperature goods are stored at, and 
  • Temperature goods are dispatched at. 

If there are any breaks in the chain and the food is exposed to a temperature or time against one of the rules, it needs to be reported immediately. Manufactures should also be informed and give instructions on what further action should be taken. 

Never Warmer Than Rule 

This rule concerns temperature. It indicates the maximum temperature food should be transported and exposed to at all stages in the cold chain. This can be accompanied with a keep above temperature.  

Chilled foods should be kept between 0°C and +4° C in most cases. This will ensure that the product is never warmer than +5° C. The keep above temperature is 0°C. 

Frozen foods and ice cream should be kept at a never warmer than temperature of -18°C. 

Maximum Out of Refrigeration Rule 

The maximum out of refrigeration rule relates to the amount of time food can be kept out of a controlled refrigerated environment. This often applies during refrigerated transport and delivery of products. 

The maximum out of refrigeration time for chilled foods being unloaded in room temperature or +5°C to +15°C air-conditioned environments is 20 minutes. 

If they are unloaded in refrigerated environments between 0°C and +5°C there is no maximum out of refrigeration time limit. This is because it is still meeting its never warmer than rule. 

When frozen foods are being unloaded into a room temperature environment, the maximum out of refrigeration time limit is 20 minutes. 

When frozen foods other than ice cream are being unloaded into an air-conditioned environment between +5°C and +15°C, the maximum out of refrigeration time limit is 60 minutes. 

If the temperature is between 0°C and +5°C in a refrigerated environment, the maximum out of refrigeration time limit is 90 minutes. 

Ice cream and ice confection has a maximum out of refrigeration time limit of 20 minutes, regardless if they are unloaded in chilled or air-conditioned environments. This is because they respond faster to temperatures above -18°C and can spoil easily. It is recommended that these products be unloaded last and put into refrigerated storage first to minimise this. They should never be unloaded at room temperature environments. 

First Expiry First Out Rule 

This FEFO rule is based on stock rotation. This means that stock with a short expiry should be used or sold before stock with a longer expiry. This is different from the first in first out rule which focuses on moving the oldest product first.  

This isn’t recommended as under this rule, stock with a long expiry could come in before stock with a short expiry. The long expiry stock would then be used first. This would allow stock with a short expiry to spoil before being sold or used. The FEFO rule prevents this from happening, reducing waste in the cold chain. 

This rule can be implemented with good inventory management systems which clearly identify expiry dates. 

Refrigerated Transport Guidelines 

There are several guidelines for different stages of the cold food chain. The guidelines for refrigerated transport are listed below. 

  • Ensure maintenance is undertaken. This includes defrosting of walls, floors, mats and refrigeration units. Seals on doors should also be checked regularly. 
  • Products should be loaded at their required temperature. Refrigerated vehicles are not designed to significantly lower temperature, just maintain it. If not loaded at the correct temperature, heat transfer to other products and spoilage may occur. 
  • Temperature checks should be periodically undertaken and recorded when new product is loaded into the refrigerated truck. This should be immediately corrected if wrong to avoid heat transfer and spoilage. The manufacturer may need to be contacted to identify whether further action should be taken. 
  • Do not overload the refrigerated truck with product. This can limit air circulation throughout the vehicle. 
  • Ensure accurate refrigeration capacity to ensure temperature is maintained. This includes air circulation, thermal mass of the load and maximum loading. 
  • Mixed temperature loads should be separated with partitions to minimise heat transfer. 
  • Fresh, chilled and frozen products should generally not be placed on the same pallets. This may be excepted if tests prove faster unloading, reducing out of refrigeration time. 
  • Drop-offs should be planned to allow time between deliveries for product to regain its not warmer than temperature. 
  • Doors should be kept closed as much as possible, including during deliveries. This is to stop the outside ambient air from rushing inside the vehicle and increasing the temperature the goods are exposed to. Good additions to reduce increased temperatures when doors are open are; plastic curtains, insulated containers and secondary doors. 


For more information about the importance of food safety, click below