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Albertson’s LLC Experiments With New Temperature Monitoring Technology

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 25, 2007

Ever since Supervalu acquired most of the choice Albertson’s stores, it is easy to forget that Albertson’s LLC still employs 47,000 people and has stores in 12 states. We received a release, though, pointing out that Albertsons LLC is still out there and doing some interesting things:

BOISE, Idaho — Albertson’s LLC announced today that it will require temperature monitoring devices on all inbound produce, fresh meat and seafood shipments to its distribution centers. The preferred monitor is the PakSense TXi™ Smart Label provided by PakSense, Inc. — an innovator in sensory solutions for packaging. PakSense Labels track the temperature of a perishable product’s environment during distribution and enable quality assurance personnel to make better quality and safety decisions.

“Providing our customers safe, high quality products is our highest priority at Albertsons. We have always monitored the temperatures of our perishable products during shipping,” explains Dave Dean, Group Vice President of Procurement for Albertson’s LLC. “But we found that traditional temperature monitoring devices were bulky and expensive. A quick return-on-investment analysis on the PakSense Label convinced me that making the switch would save us a substantial amount of money — and provide better quality assurance for our customers.”

A flat, 2” x 2” disk, PakSense labels are sealed in food-grade packaging and are easy to use. They also cost a fraction of current monitoring systems, which promotes their use in more product shipments. Lights on the sensor alert quality assurance personal if temperature specifications have been breached and all data collected by the label can be downloaded and graphed, enabling Albertsons LLC to pinpoint if, when and for how long, temperature excursions occurred. PakSense Labels are intended for one time use and are priced accordingly. There are no laborious rebate programs to adhere to in order to recoup money invested in temperature monitoring devices.

“We are embracing new technology so we can be at the forefront of food quality and safety,” continued Dean. “With PakSense Labels, we can sample temperatures throughout a trailer — not just on the top. We view this as another tool to ensure our customers receive the freshest products available.”

It is an interesting concept. You can check out a video here to learn a little more about the program. Because the disk used is so thin, we were hopeful that it might be suitable for use in store, monitoring product temperatures in refrigerated cases. As we pointed out here, just because the thermometer by the blower says the temperature is good, it doesn’t mean the actual product is being held at the proper temperature.

To learn about this program, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with both Stacia Levenfeld, a spokesperson for Albertson’s LLC, and David Baldwin, Vice President Sales & Marketing for PakSense, the creator and marketer of the device:

Stacia Levenfeld
Spokesperson
Albertson’s LLC
Boise, Idaho

Q: What triggered Albertson’s to require temperature monitoring devices on all inbound produce, fresh meat and seafood, and why PakSense?

A: It was the technology we were looking for to enhance quality and food safety. Truly what spurred our action was the ability to use it. This is much more affordable than in the past. I’m not saying technology to keep food safe was bad before. We didn’t have a food incident that spurred the transition. The earlier technology monitored ambient temperature in the truck, so we had a general idea of the temperature for the stacks of product in that shipment.

Q: How do you use this technology to get a more accurate reading?

A: Now we can put labels in different areas of the truck. For example, in a standard shipment we would use up to four labels. It may be cold on the top of the load, but how cold is it in the middle or at the bottom or sides?

Q: How many labels do you actually use per shipment and does the amount change based on commodity or category or other variables?

A: I confirmed with Dan Sutton, our director of produce procurement, that the number of labels takes into account the travel time and length of shipment, the size of the load and the type of product. It may vary to accommodate more temperature sensitive items. For example, potatoes are not as sensitive to temperature fluctuation. To keep the quality high, it doesn’t have to be freezing cold, so putting one or two labels on that shipment is sufficient. In contrast, loads like strawberries are much more volatile to temperature change so, according to Dan, multiple devices would be used to better analyze the product. At the same time, if the shipment is in southern Texas, only an hour away from our distribution center, it may not make sense to put four labels in the truck. We are using the technology intelligently. Dan is the person who initially managed the PakSense testing and rollout.

Q: Doesn’t the technology allow a more precise temperature assessment as well?

A: The fundamental shift in technology is being able to have the temperature monitoring closer to the product. The other advantage of PakSense technology that we didn’t have before is that when we download the information we can use it to forecast shelf life. We can see whether the product is diminished by temperature changes and better understand the detriment. The product temperature may be breached, going up or down, but there is still x amount of shelf life left.

Q: Since you are able to download the information from the tags, and they are designed for one-time use, what benefit does Albertson’s accrue by holding on to the tags?

A: Unless there is an indication, the little flashing light on the tag alerts us that there has been a breach in the product temperature; we do not download the data, so it wouldn’t be in our system. The significance of stapling the device to the incoming paperwork is that if there is ever a question about the product quality or the handling, we can go back and download the data if necessary to compliment the archive process. This is important to note because downloading all the data initially would take a huge amount of labor.

Q: Dave Dean, Group Vice President of Procurement for Alberston’s LLC, says temperature monitoring devices were bulky and expensive and that making the switch would save a substantial amount of money. Could you give us an estimate of the savings?

A: One key component of our decision to put the technology through our operation is that we could afford it. PakSense has brought back the price. The devices are probably a little less than half of the cost we were spending before. For us it was the cost that drove our ability to bring in this new technology. That made it possible.

Q: How long have you actually been using the technology?

A: We started testing it last spring, first with produce then meat, and then seafood, slowing expanding our use. It got to the point where we were ready to start requiring it of all our suppliers in these areas.

Q: Is it actually a requirement to use PakSense labels because in the press release it says PakSense is the “preferred” monitor.

A: We used the word “preferred” because we don’t want to preclude using another technology if it comes along. There are other people out there developing this technology but we have our arrangement with PakSense.

Q: Who pays for it?

A: Technically the suppliers put the labels on, but essentially we pay for it. They put the labels on incoming shipments and then invoice us for the cost. We are about 70 percent compliant with all incoming loads in categories of produce, fresh meat and seafood.

Q: Are you capitalizing on the labels in other ways within your retail operation?

A: It’s fair to say we continue to evaluate where and how we use the labels. Our highest priority is temperature monitoring today, but we will continue to explore other uses.

Q: Like what?

A: Outside of our warehouses, we’re testing the use of the tags in meat and produce coolers around the country. It’s not a rollout. We’re just using them to see whether it would be a valuable use of the device. Basically we’re using them in places where we may feel the equipment is not properly functioning, and so allowing us to check over time to be sure the cases are being held at the proper temperatures. Past temperature monitoring devices of this type had not been used in the past because the technology was too bulky and would have looked inappropriate in the case. The PakSense labels are small enough to be placed in the case discretely.

I want to make clear that there was no incident that drove this PakSense initiative. There was no allegation about food that we received from a vendor. Before, we couldn’t guarantee how product was handled prior to receiving it at our distribution center. This is just basically one more assurance to us that we are ensuring product integrity and quality for consumers. This technology gives us a huge advantage in monitoring quality and safety of product.

David Baldwin
Vice President Sales & Marketing
PakSense
Boise, Idaho

Q: What are the key benefits this technology brings to the perishables industry?

A: When we looked at temperature monitoring in the cold chain we saw outdated technology at very high prices. From our perspective, we come from the technology industry where advanced semi conductor technology is known for its high features and functionality and low cost. We thought this industry could benefit.

Our company took the lead in transforming temperature recording technology into a flat adhesive label. Before this, recording devices were bulky and the size of a deck of cards or a VCR tape. This move to labels was significant because it opened up use-models not possible with electronic recorders, along with reducing costs. We noticed that cost was a significant prohibitive factor, especially in the produce industry to adapting temperature recording technology.

The third driving factor was not requiring any further infrastructure for the company to use the smart label format. RFID technology requires intensive infrastructure to work out logistics, trucks, relays and hubs, IT infrastructure in order to read temperatures. Many advances are coming on with RFID, but time is a factor.

Q: When did you first introduce PakSense labels to the market?

A: We launched the product April 2006 in the Smart Label flat adhesive format. Information can be downloaded in a PC for half or third of the cost of the earlier temperature recording technologies.

The industry has responded extremely favorably, the retail side as well as the grower/shipper side looking for ways to reduce cost and overhead and augment user models.

Q: How unique is this compared to other products on the market?

A: The market has been dominated by strip chart recorders, pure strip analog non-electronic devices like Ryan [which is owned by Sensitech]. Escort has a competing electronic recorder and Sensitech has one as well. These use processors and memories to track temperature and record that in a recorder that can be downloaded into a PC. The difference is these are larger instruments and use proprietary software to pull out data.

Our approach was to pre-program these devices on an adhesive label that goes onto a box or in between a box or actually inside the food. It is couched in food grade pouching material.

Q: What is the advantage of this?

A: We monitor surface temperatures, rather than taking air samples. Product temperatures and air temperatures are completely different. The benefit of flat adhesive labels is their ability to go in with the product to take surface temperatures, which correlates more closely to actual product temperature. Really, the only way to get a true accurate reading is to probe the product. The best way to simulate that without damaging product along the way is to test surface temperatures. It’s an indicator, not a replacement.

Q: Could you give us a scenario where this testing difference would matter?

A: If a grower/shipper were not to pre-cool product well enough, product could still be respirating once the truck door was closed, even though the temperature in the truck was set at 36 degrees. The traditional temperature recorder would test air blowing over the pallet but there would be no visibility at the core of the pallet, especially ones in the center with virtually no air flow. The product temperature would still be respirating, generating heat and continuing to rise in temperature. A product with high respiration rate like mushrooms or asparagus or broccoli, if not properly pre-cooled, easily goes up.

Q: How did Albertson’s get involved? And are other retailers and suppliers taking on the technology as well?

A: Albertson’s was a terrific supporter of ours, adopting the technology quickly and requiring it of produce, meat and seafood suppliers. Growers/shippers started using it in house as well, as part of their pre-cooling process or farming it out to others within their supply chain. The partnership with Albertson’s has been a great catalyst to growers/shippers adopting this technology as well. By simply putting a little flat label on boxes, the technology allows for full electronic data to be recorded to track temperature history in a data base. It provides protection insurance and indemnification in the case of recalls or claims with food safety.

Q: How secure are the labels over time?

A: Data inside the label can’t be tampered with or changed in any way. You can take the label off and staple it to documents. Three months later, if there is an issue with food safety, the company can pull out their documents with the actual label from that shipment box, and the original data can be read out. The label remains absolutely tamper proof, and the information doesn’t erase or dilute overtime.

This is one use model that is far more efficient than the old temperature recorder method. In that scenario, there is the issue of how to retrieve those boxes somewhere on the shipment, take them in a room and read them out at some other place, then take a big plastic box and collect them and ship them back to the original manufacturer for a rebate or send back to the origin to re-program. We take all that extra overhead cost out of the system.

These labels are flexible to use, and significant cost savings can be reapplied to allow increasing sampling rates on each trip and additional uses.

Q: Are there applications that can be applied at the consumer packaging level, such as alerting consumers when a product’s use-by-date has expired?

A: Packaging at the consumer level is a real quandary for the industry now. There are technologies that could be applied, but there is major pull back from retailers. We haven’t targeted the technology at the consumer level.

However, retail chains can use our labels in stores for workers to monitor temperature and freshness of products on displays and bins. The retail stores then have digital records in their PCs in case questions of quality, freshness or safety arise. They can use the technology to track different product and seasonal trends. The small size of the label encourages self-monitoring and ease of use. Our customers have invented myriad applications. One such use involves pulling off the labels and sending them through the mail.

Q: Besides Albertson’s, what other retailers are showing interest in the technology?

A: The portion of the industry that has embraced the technology is the quality assurance departments in produce and meats. Q&A directors say temperature recorders are not optimal or too expensive for the produce industry. They are interested in easier applications.

We have quite a few partnerships underway but none that we can reveal right now.

Albertson’s was the first to recognize the benefits immediately and has been very forward thinking. Albertson’s LLC side really wants to demonstrate it is doing things for quality and freshness and differentiating itself.

Change is difficult. People become entrenched in old ways of thinking and don’t realize they could apply this technology at half the price to monitor actual product temperature for quality and safety quite easily; readers are $175, snap off a preprogrammed label to start and you’re off to the races. This technology has been available to the semi conductor industry for some time at a low price.

We see this as a bridge to RFID, a way to test temperature sensoring technology without the cost and infrastructure. There is a unique ID number with each label that can be tied to the grower, or a particular crop or field, and sent through supply chain. All those digital records can be used to trace product quality and safety.

There are programmable alerts with blinking lights on the surface of the label. User specifications associated with each product or customer specify the approved range for that product. It will trigger a warning on the surface of the label if the temperature goes below or above the range and the cold chain has been breached. The visual indicator on the surface of the label can tell anyone in the supply chain without any instrumentation. Then data can be downloaded to see at what time it was breached, for how long, and at what critical control points. If the label is blinking green, it means there is no problem and the cold chain is secure. Traditional devices involve a lot of training and quite frankly a lot of errors.

This technology is low cost and easy to use right now and will converge with RFID in the future.

Albertson’s LLC has been busy selling off stores and downsizing overhead. So one senses an admirable kind of pluck in pursuing a project like this. The chain isn’t in a position to invest fortunes in RFID for a long term payback, but they still can do good work.

One wonders how this changes truckers’ obligations? It is one thing to have one temperature recording or monitoring device — now you can have four…or more. Is a trucker supposed to maintain temperature on the warmest spot on the truck?

What would be a clear win for quality and food safety would be if these devices help retailers maintain minimum temperatures in display cases. This is an experiment that should be expanded.

The devices are impressive. What we don’t know is the degree to which they are protected by proprietary technology.

The idea of not having to return recorders is very appealing, so if this works as Albertsons LLC claims, there will be lots of demand for small recorders and monitors.

Many thanks to Stacia and David and to Albertson’s LLC and PakSense for sharing their project with the trade.

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