Cold Chain Guidelines (Condensed)

The Post Harvest Team   |   May 5, 2020
Cold Chain Guidelines Title Image

this Guide was originally produced by the Australian Food and Grocery Council in a more concentrated format.

Section 1 The Cold Chain

What is a cold chain?

The Cold Chain consists of a series of businesses engaged in manufacturing, transporting, storing, retailing and serving fresh, chilled and frozen foods.

Over the last two decades, the distance that foods travel from paddock to plate has increased. The average food is moved in and out of refrigeration control 14 times before consumption. In one South Australian study, broccoli took 39 steps along the Cold Chain – having as many as 23 operators and 21 stages involved on the way – to reach consumers.

The effectiveness of the Cold Chain in maintaining the safety, shelf life and quality of foods relies on controlling product temperature through each and every step. All the operations that form the links in the Cold Chain must understand the need to follow the cold chain rules.


Those involved in the Cold Chain should:

  • plan how the Cold Chain Conditions for a food can be met by talking with contractors, customers and suppliers, including in relation to record keeping, logs and process documentation;
  • implement an ongoing program of training for personnel in Cold Chain handling, covering housekeeping, hygienic discipline and process control requirements, management training in safety and quality, and retraining and refresher courses to reinforce knowledge; and
  • continuously review policies and operating procedures as part of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) and internal Food Safety Programs.

Record Keeping

Why is proper record keeping so important?

The first reason is that record keeping is an essential part of the mandatory food safety plan requirements for food businesses throughout Australia. Failure to keep proper records to demonstrate adherence to a food safety plan can be a criminal offence.

Secondly, records are used by independent food auditors to assess whether food safety and/or food quality standards are being met. Failing an audit has significant consequences for customer contracts.

Thirdly, proper records and logs help deal with situations where things have gone wrong. It is vital to know the times and temperatures to which goods have been subjected in order to make appropriate decisions as to what to do next.

Finally, records are the quickest way to ensure that Cold Chain conditions for a food remain intact. This is important because some spoilage due to heat stress can take place even at very low temperatures. For example, enzymatic activity, which can develop off-flavours in some foods, only ceases at about -18°C, and so a food might be spoiled even though it has been kept “frozen” (ie below 0°C) throughout its journey. Only by keeping accurate records will you be able to tell whether or not such enzymatic activity might have taken place. Bad record keeping, on the other hand, provides no assurance that spoilage has not occurred, and of itself could be grounds for rejecting goods.

Typically two years minimum retention is required by auditors and for the purpose of being able to rely on a due diligence defence with food safety regulators domestically and internationally in case of exports.

Section 2 Cold Chain Rules

The cold chain

The Cold Chain consists of the series of businesses engaged in manufacturing, transporting, storing, retailing and serving chilled and frozen foods.

For a particular food, Cold Chain conditions will be set relating to maximum (and sometimes minimum) temperature requirements and the period of time that a food can be allowed to remain unrefrigerated. The effectiveness of the Cold Chain in maintaining the safety, shelf life and quality of foods depends on each business managing and recording compliance with the Cold Chain conditions.

A Cold Chain that maintains the integrity of its Cold Chain conditions ensures that food is safe to eat when it reaches the consumer, and is of the quality and has the shelf life intended by its manufacturer or producer. Any break in the Cold Chain conditions may affect the quality of the food, the length of its shelf life or in the worst case, make the food unsafe to eat.

Setting the cold chain conditions

It is the responsibility of the manufacturer or producer, in consultation with its clients, to set the Cold Chain requirements for any particular food.

Cold Chain requirements established as a result of these requirements must be clearly spelled out in all documents relating to the transportation, storage, handling and sale of the food, and should be referenced in the food safety plan of each Cold Chain business.

Temperatures below +5°C slow the natural deterioration and spoilage of fresh foods and the growth of microbes, but refrigeration does not kill microbes, and some bacteria capable of causing illness are able to grow under normal refrigeration temperatures. There are limits on how long foods can be safely held even when refrigerated. Cold chain businesses should pass foods through the Cold Chain as quickly as possible to minimise these risks.

Section 3 “Never warmer than” rule

The Rule

The NEVER WARMER THAN rule is a temperature rule: it states the maximum temperature at which a food should be transported, stored and handled. In the case of CHILLED foods, it may be accompanied by a KEEP ABOVE temperature to ensure that the food is not damaged by becoming frozen.

The manufacturer or producer is responsible for setting any NEVER WARMER THAN temperature and, for CHILLED FOODS, any KEEP ABOVE temperature (see section 1.3 above). These temperatures must be specified in all documents that accompany the food and be communicated from each link in the Cold Chain to the next link.

Record Keeping

Each link in the Cold Chain must, record –

  • The temperature of the food on receipt and how it was determined;
  • A temperature log of the environment in which the food is transported, stored or handled (eg the varied internal temperatures of refrigerated transport) and how that log was generated; and
  • The temperature of the food on delivery and how it was determined.

Section 4 Maximum “out of refrigeration” rule

The Rule

The MAXIMUM “OUT OF REFRIGERATION” TIME LIMIT is a time rule: it states the maximum period a Cold Chain food can be outside a temperature controlled environment (eg an open loading dock) without breaking the Cold Chain conditions.

Like the NEVER WARMER THAN rule, the MAXIMUM “OUT OF REFRIGERATION” TIME LIMIT is established by the manufacturer or producer in consultation with its customers– see section 1.3 above. MAXIMUM “OUT OF REFRIGERATION” TIME LIMIT times must be specified in all documents that accompany the food and be communicated from each link in the Cold Chain to the next link.

Record Keeping

Each link in the Cold Chain must record –

  • The time the food left refrigeration;
  • A record –
  • stating the environment in which the food was held while out of refrigeration;
  • providing a log of the temperature within that environment (eg the internal temperature of an air-conditioned receiving bay, or, ambient temperature); and
  • stating how that log was generated;
  • The time the food re-entered refrigeration; and
  • The elapsed time out of refrigeration.

Section 5 The FEFO Stock Rotation

The Rule

Correct stock rotation is based on the ‘first to expire is first out’ (FEFO) rule, ensuring that stock which has been in the system longest is moved first. This stock rotation principle is applied in many cold chains internationally to minimise wastage. While sounding simple, the problem is that without a proper inventory management system, it is usually the most recently arrived stock that is most accessible, and so the first used – and this can be the exact opposite of FEFO.

FEFO may seem to be the same as “first in, first out” (FIFO), in that the product that has been in storage the longest will probably have the soonest expiry date. However, this is not always the case, as variations in stock supply and rotation earlier in the Cold Chain can mean that products arrive out of expiry date sequence. It is the expiry date, rather than arrival date, that drives selection for dispatch.

Implementing the Rule

To implement an inventory management system requires three things:

  • A product identification marking or markings on shipping cartons (eg barcode, RFID tag, on pack printing, etc) to identify the product, its durable life “expiry” date and its received date (this may be a manufacturer applied marking or one applied at the facility);
  • A system for recording and monitoring product location within a handling facility;
  • A product handling system that applies the FEFO principle, knowing what products are in the facility, each product’s expiry date, when they were received and where they are located, so that soonest expiry product is selected first for dispatch.

There are third party inventory management systems available ranging from off-the-shelf computer programs through to full automated receipt, storage and dispatch systems. However, for small companies a simple pen and paper system might be enough.

Section 6 When Things Go Wrong- What To Do If The Cold Chain Is Broken

Contact Information

Manufacturers and producers must include in product documentation a contact person for Cold Chain queries and notifications, and can also indicate in the documentation what initial measures can be taken if the Cold Chain is broken to minimise any further damage to the products.

Cold Chain businesses must educate their staff of the importance of notifications, and have in place procedures to encourage notifications (eg by making it clear that notifications are treated positively and that job security is not threatened by notifications).


If any break in the Cold Chain conditions takes place, the person or people detecting the break must –

  • Notify their business owner of the nature of the break in Cold Chain conditions (ie whether it is a break of the NEVER WARMER THAN and/or of the MAXIMUM “OUT OF REFRIGERATION” TIME LIMIT rule) and any circumstances relating to the break;
  • Notify, or arrange for someone else to notify, the manufacturer or producer of the nature of the break and any circumstances relating to the break;
  • Take the action, if any, specified in the product documentation for the break in conditions; and
  • Take such further action, if any, communicated by the business owner or by the manufacturer or producer.
  • Make a record of –
  • the nature of the break in Cold Chain conditions and any circumstances relating to the break;
  • the time and date of notifications to the business owner and the manufacturer (including the name of the person contacted and the person making the contact); and
  • what action was taken, when and by whom, and who was consulted or authorised actions.

Section 7 Manufacturing

Control of quality and safety of foods destined for the Cold Chain starts with the growers and manufacturers. The first stage consists of the harvesting, selection, receipt, and preparation, handling and processing of raw materials.

These Guidelines begin with recommendations for the packing and refrigeration of finished food products at manufacturing level (not growing level), as Cold Chain controls at harvest may differ from product to product.

Section 8 Dispatch And Delivery

The second stage of the Cold Chain involves the control of dispatch and delivery process of chilled and frozen foods to their destinations. This can occur multiple times through the Cold Chain as a food transfers from one operator to another, for example from manufacturer to transport operator, from transport operator to warehouse, from warehouse to another transport operator and from transport operator to retailer.

The transfer of product from one Cold Chain operator to another is a critical time to closely monitor Cold Chain conditions because the product is usually out of refrigeration for at least some time during the process, and so is vulnerable. It is worth repeating that spoilage can occur quickly and even while a product is still frozen.

Receiving/Delivering Guidelines

BOTH the transport operator and the receiving operator should work to achieve maintenance of the Cold Chain conditions for goods at point of delivery.

The guidelines relating to delivery are –

  • The transport operator should provide to the receiving operator the original or a copy of –
  • the load-in documentation showing product temperatures at pallet loading
  • in-transit temperature logs and/or manual records of temperature checks
  • the applicable Cold Chain conditions relating to NEVER WARMER THAN and KEEP ABOVE temperatures, and MAXIMUM OUT OF REFRIGERATION time for the product
  • clear instructions about what to do in the event of a break in the Cold Chain.
  • Remember that ice cream is especially sensitive to heat shock and should be given priority in unloading and taken straight to a freezer area to minimise the out of refrigeration time.
  • The receiving operator should identify goods and enter details into the receiving operator’s system for stock management, including batch identification and date markings.
  • The receiving operator should check the vehicle for hygienic storage, and in particular check for damaged packaging or potential contamination from other products (eg household chemicals).
  • The receiving operator should note the time that the product leaves refrigerated transport, its temperature (ideally the temperature of the actual goods, not the air temperature or the temperature of the packaging) and the time that the product is returned to refrigerated storage according to its NEVER WARMER THAN temperature. If the elapsed time is longer than the MAXIMUM OUT OF REFRIGERATION time, institute corrective action.
  • Both transport operator and receiving operator should complete product unload movements as quickly as possible to minimise the out of refrigeration time.
  • The receiving operator should move product from the receiving dock to refrigerated storage appropriate to the product’s NEVER WARMER THAN temperature as soon as possible.
  • BOTH transport and receiving operators should retain records as required by operator procedures.

Section 9 Transportation

Transportation of Cold Chain Goods, whether by air, road, rail or sea, needs to be undertaken using vehicles and/or equipment designed and maintained for that specialised task. This goes beyond simple refrigeration, and can include elements such as corrugated floors to promote good/even air circulation, trailer insulation, door seals, brakes, insulated walls to create heat transfer barriers, and so on.

Like any physical asset that is hard working, assets have optimum efficient working life. The thermal efficiency of trailers, containers, diminishes with years of use, until operator replaces it with a more modern unit. It is therefore not surprising that there is often considerable temperature variation throughout any operating trailer, such that actual product temperatures differ significantly, to trailer/container return air temperatures. These product excursions can be microbiologically significant over delivery time. Ambient temperatures and journey durations, are also relevant to product cold chain compliance.

Beyond the mechanical considerations of the refrigerated asset above, are also the human operator considerations, including product load-out temperatures, load line compliance, keeping unit running at all times – sleep times, etc.

Section 10 Storage And Warehousing

The key issues for Cold Chain products during storage are air circulation, temperature control and record keeping. Each requires procedures that must be continually validated and audited to make sure they are achieving their intended effect of maintaining store Cold Chain product within their assigned Cold Chain conditions.

Staff training is a critical issue to ensure staff are able to correctly respond to alarms, identify issues and institute corrective action. Warehouse staff should be encouraged to be proactive in checking and providing information about storage conditions to the relevant personnel within the business.

Air Circulation Warehousing

The guidelines for proper air circulation are –

  • Do not over-pack the storage area. Cold storage operators should always follow operator policies and equipment recommendations to allow adequate air circulation around packed product on floor stacks, in ante-rooms and/ or on racking to ensure the even distribution of cold air, and control of product temperature. The default rule is that products should be kept a minimum distance of 15 centimetres from walls and floors and 60 centimetres from ceilings.
  • Never store product in direct physical contact with walls, floors or ceilings.
  • Where product is located underneath refrigeration compressors, adequate measures should be in place to protect stock from damage due to water from defrost systems.

Temperature Control

Achieving and controlling the appropriate temperature is essential when storing chilled foods. Accurate thermometers or data loggers (+/-1 oC) placed in the warmest part of the facility (usually near doors) should be used to help maintain the proper environment in the cold store or warehouse. All thermometers should be calibrated regularly (at least annually). See Appendix 3 - Temperature Measurement for more information.

To control cold store temperatures effectively:

  • Minimise air temperature variation to avoid reduction in quality and reduction in useable shelf life of product;
  • Minimise door openings and/ or traffic movement in and out of the cold store;
  • Take prompt steps to reduce the product temperature should any increase occur;
  • Ensure defrost cycle systems are adequately designed and that alarms are in place and will be triggered to ensure prompt and auditable corrective action will be taken;
  • Conduct regular checks to ensure alarms, compressors, defrost cycles, thermostats and cooling towers are running safely and in good working order;
  • Ensure that any damaged walls and door seals that could leak cold air out and allow hot ambient air in are promptly repaired; and
  • Ensure optimum stacking patterns and floor layout to facilitate airflow.

Record Keeping

Continuous data logging from calibrated sensors is the preferred approach for cold storage. In less critical, short term or smaller business operations, monitoring must be sufficiently frequent to detect trends, and in particular malfunctions, in temperature control. At a minimum, temperature readings must be at least twice daily.

Records of cold store temperatures must be retained for later reference according to operator procedures.


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