Keeping your cool and avoiding the blame game

When something goes awry with a shipment of temperature-sensitive product, blame is often first cast upon the carrier. This places the carrier in a precarious position. Do you dig in your heels and argue with the customer at the risk of losing future business? Or do you accept blame, even though you’re confident your company maintained the integrity of the product while it was within your care?

Many refrigerated carriers are now wisening up and taking advantage of the latest tracking technologies to ensure product is handled correctly while in-transit and to protect themselves – and their customers – from blame when others along the supply chain have made a mistake that compromised the product.

There are many systems on the market today that allow for the real-time, remote monitoring of cargo temperatures. Phil Langevin, president of P.A. Langevin Transport in Carleton Place, Ont., adopted Blue Tree Systems’ R:COM after learning the hard way how quickly a carrier can be wrongly accused.

Langevin recalled a time when the LTL carrier was blamed when one portion of a 12,000-lb order went bad. Because the rest of the load was fine, Langevin knew the mishandling of the product didn’t occur while it was in-transit, but he had little to offer in the way of proof.

“I said, ‘What are you saying? That we pulled over at the side of the road, unloaded 4,000 lbs, heated it up and put it back in the trailer’?” Langevin recalled.

Meanwhile, Langevin was noticing that more shippers were sealing the trailer, making it trickier for the driver to ensure cargo temperatures were properly maintained while in-transit. Enter the R:COM system, which now allows Langevin to track cargo temperatures from his office and receive real-time alerts when something goes wrong. Previously, drivers had to visit a dealer and physically download reefer data, which was difficult to schedule while making LTL deliveries.

“By the time you get a guy over to Thermo King or Carrier to download the reefer, there’s so much time involved. And we do LTL, so we do a lot of deliveries with appointments and you can’t skip appointments,” Langevin said. “Now, any time we need to know the temperature, it’s right there at our fingertips and that makes it a lot quicker and easier.”

It also makes it easier for P.A. Langevin to help its customers identify when and how product may have been mishandled along the supply chain, or at least to absolve the carrier from blame.

“If there is an issue or a claim or if they are telling us the product was at the wrong temperature, we can just download (a report) and fire it off to them to show them we had the reefer set at the proper temperatures,” Langevin said. 

Ram Berniker, owner of Bel Refrigerated Transport, which runs 18 trucks and 26 refrigerated trailers primarily serving the Ontario market, uses Orbcomm’s StarTrak reefer monitoring system for the same reasons. It protects his customers from being wrongly blamed for product spoilage and it also absolves his company, when the product was properly delivered.

In one instance, a customers’ customer moved from one warehouse to another and afterwards claimed that product was spoiled when it was delivered to the first warehouse. 

“They came back and claimed the product was delivered out of temperature and the product was compromised,” Berniker recalled. Even though the complaint was issued eight months after the delivery, “We provided proof of what the temperature was and what we delivered and the claim went away.”

Berniker can view six months’ worth of data on his computer and can ask StarTrak to go back as far as two years. The program is customizable, so Berniker can determine when he’d like to receive alerts.

“You can have notifications for everything, but at that point the deluge of data is going to be overwhelming,” he said. Berniker receive alerts for things such as low oil levels and overheated reefer units.

Andy Ellison, logistics manager with Cold Star Freight Systems, which delivers food from the Lower Mainland in B.C. to Vancouver Island, said his company tracks product temperature while in-transit, including when the trucks are aboard the ferries.

“B.C. Ferries has its own internal procedures, which dictate that we have to turn our refrigeration units off while on the ferries,” he said. “It has always created a few challenges, especially on highly temperature-sensitive product. We do a lot of conveyance testing, where we will seal up the conveyance – an empty unit – turn all the refrigeration units off and see how much the temperature drops in a very specific period of time, so we know how many degrees we lose over a period of time.”

It’s not uncommon for Cold Star drivers to turn the reefers off as they roll onto the ferry and then power them back up as they’re rolling off, Ellison noted. Cold Star uses Thermo King’s Wintrac reefer tracking software and Telus’ Fleet Complete for tracking and monitoring of cargo temperatures. Also, each unit is equipped with temperature probes drivers are required to use when picking up a load to ensure the integrity of the product that’s being picked up for delivery.

“The most important thing to start with, at the time the product is picked up, is that it’s at the correct temperature,” Ellison explained. “We have a variety of different procedures in place, starting at the dock level. At dock level, drivers are checking the temperatures to ensure they’re within the correct specifications.”

When food becomes spoiled due to being stored at the incorrect temperature, it’s usually because it was not properly stored by the receiver, Ellison noted. To reduce these incidents, Cold Star drivers offer to deliver the product right to the appropriate cooler.

“Our drivers are instructed that just leaving it on the dock, that’s not the end of our job,” Ellison said. “When they get to the customer, the question is asked ‘Is there a cooler you’d like me to put this in?’ Some consignees will say ‘No, we’ll take it from here,’ but the question is still asked. It’s not just a matter of dropping it on the dock and walking away because as everybody knows, things get forgotten. That skid could be sitting out there for a couple of hours.”

Cold Star is diligent about maintaining its refrigeration units and has a refrigeration technician that’s constantly inspecting and maintaining equipment and is on-call 24/7. The refrigeration units are maintained every six months and new trailers are ordered regularly.

“We are constantly upgrading our equipment,” Ellison said. “We are constantly bringing new trailers in. Every couple of years someone comes up with a better way of keeping a trailer cold. We like to keep on the cutting edge of that.”

A trailer’s ability to keep in cold air is as essential as a fleet’s ability to monitor temperatures. Berniker said he pays as much as twice the amount for a new refrigerated trailer as some of his competitors, even though it costs him interior space.

“I’m not able to put as many pallets on my trailer as my competition is,” he said. “Because I have so much insulation I don’t have the interior width to put 30 pallets in, I can only put in 28. I tell my customers what I sell them is temperature control, not space, and on the hottest day of the year on the shortest trip, this is the only way I know to achieve it.”

P.A. Langevin is one of the last carriers to haul hanging beef, which requires the refrigeration unit to be constantly on, to maintain continuous airflow around the meat. Langevin said the ability to remotely monitor reefer fault codes gives him peace of mind that problems can be identified and fixed before they result in a downed unit or a lost load.

“Having this tool just allows us to make sure everything is going well with our trailer and to try to catch some of the fault codes, some of the warnings that are coming up, before the unit goes down,” Langevin said. 

For many transporters of temperature-sensitive food products, the mission to deliver product not only on time, but also at the correct temperature, is personal.

“We’re feeding our families, so let’s make sure we do everything we can to make sure the product is getting to the end-customer at the right time and the right temperature,” Ellison said. “I enjoy the fact I can go into a grocery store and look at the display of chicken breasts and say, ‘I know who delivered that, I know when it was delivered and that it was at the correct temperature when it got here’.”

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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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