How Cold Chain Differs Between the Food and Pharmaceutical Industries!

Cold Chain

The cold chain is a temperature-controlled supply chain that includes continuous refrigeration of the product from production to transportation, handling, storage, and delivery.

Cold chains are essential to preserve and maintain the suitability of foods such as fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, frozen foods, seafood), chemical products, and pharmaceuticals (vaccines, prescribed drugs, over-the-counter medicines).  

Cold chains are used both in the food/restaurant and pharmaceutical industries, and the average temperature ranges between  2 °C and 8 °C, but the specific temperatures and tolerances used will obviously depend on the specific item being transported and stored. Additional environmental parameters such as air quality make work difficult.

How Cold Chain in The Food Industry Differs From Cold Chain in The Pharmaceutical Industry

The complexity of global supply chains is increasing day by day. The need for logistics companies to monitor their temperatures when transporting food and medicine accurately. Pharmaceutical companies have sustained immense growth over the last several years and have been implementing best practices, unlike the food supply industries. 

Here are some of the factors that differentiate the food industry cold chain from that of pharmaceuticals.

Type of Goods 

The food industry uses cold chain management for perishable items such as meat products, fish and other seafood, milk, yogurt, ice cream, vegetables, fruits, packaged food, chocolate, candy, industrial margarine, and oil.

The pharmaceutical industry uses cold chains for medical items such as vaccines, biologics, oncology treatments, some types of insulin, and other medicines

Cost efficiencies

Spoilage is an important factor that determines the cost-efficiency of a supply chain. Due to this reason, pharmaceutical companies regularly monitor their temperature-controlled items periodically. This results in cost reduction.

The utilization of the technology solutions that have been solely developed for their industry distinguishes them from the food industry.

However, it’s essential to know that modern innovations are also in place to improve efficiency, enhance profitability, and reduce costs in the food industry. For example, in the meat processing industry, technological solutions like meat processing software are available and will be a significant investment.

It’s intended to simplify and manage meat processing procedures, helping form cost-efficient strategies for operations while ensuring quality control and regulatory compliance.  


The food industry uses the freezing preservation method, to store food products for a long time. The freezing process stops microbial growth, while the activity of enzymes naturally present in the structure of foods and various chemical reactions slow down significantly.

Therefore, it is ensured that the natural flavor, color, and nutritional value of frozen foods are preserved in the best way. Whereas, the pharmaceutical industry uses shelf-life testing methods to assess the functionality, effectiveness, and stability of a pharmaceutical product over a period of time.


Perishable goods are protected well if kept in cooler areas with specific temperature ranges. The freezer should remain at 0 °C or below. Pharmaceutical companies’ medication storage temperatures should be maintained between 15 °C and 30 °C.

Management of cold chain supply 

There are different types of commercial refrigerators used to manage cold chain supply. These types include reach-in refrigerators, walk-in refrigerators, semi-vertical display cabinets, under-counter refrigerators, drop-in coolers, deli cases, and many more.

Reach-in refrigerators allow easy access to food or any commodity in refrigerated storage. An under-counter fridge offers extra refrigerator space and is suitable for small kitchens and food trucks. On the other hand, deli cases store sliced meats, salads, sandwiches, cakes, and cheese, keeping them fresh. 

Commercial fridges and deep freezer systems play a crucial role in maintaining the ideal temperature of products such as food, pharmaceutical goods, and other medical-related items across different industries.

Tropical fruits and vegetables undergo controlled ripening during transport and the temperature must be maintained to range between 12° and 14 °C. On the other hand, most pharmaceutical goods that require temperature control must be kept between 2° and 8 °C. In addition, the chemicals of some drugs may change when exposed to varying temperatures. And as such, it’s essential to store them in a cool and dry place, away from heat.

Furthermore, some biologicals such as organs and tissues must be kept frozen during transport. Dry ice or deep freezer systems keep these items frozen for extended periods. However, the storage temperature for some biologicals may vary depending on the type of tissue.

For instance, tendons and bones should be kept below -40°C to attain their entire shelf life, usually up to five years from the donation. They can be stored from -20° to -40°C for up to three months. And more so, it’s crucial to place human tissues for thawing in a +4°C refrigerator within 24 hours without re-freezing.  

Proper use of donated human tissues with minimal wastage is a must. For this reason, facilities keep stock levels to a minimum to prevent expiration.  


Generally, the cold chain process also differs between the food and pharmaceutical industries in terms of transportation. The food industry requires specific cold chain equipment for vehicles. For instance, they should have isothermal equipment to restrict heat exchange between the van’s interior and exterior.

The refrigerated equipment in the car should have a non-mechanical source of cold to minimize the interior temperature and keep it within the average exterior temperature. Lastly, the freezer should have a cold production mechanism to lower the empty space’s internal temperature.  

On the other hand, the pharmaceutical industry has different packaging solutions for temperature-controlled transportation. These include active, hybrid, and passive containers. The active containers have active temperature control to ensure they stay within a specific temperature range.

The hybrid containers have enhanced technology and systems to provide a certain temperature level. The passive containers are insulated containers with no active temperature control.  

Generally, active cold-chain packaging solutions are the be the best option for temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products.

Usage of Dry Ice 

During transport, it is important that pharmaceutical products like vaccines, biological samples, and other medical products are constantly stored within a limited temperature range from the time of production to its use.

Dry ice provides long-term and continuous cooling for medical and pharmaceutical shipments throughout the entire cold chain, with a significant cooling capacity, and slowly sublimes back into a gas, leaving no water or leftovers. This ensures that the product temperature is maintained throughout the entire cold chain without refrigerant damage.

During the pandemic, some COVID-19 vaccines required storage and transportation at approximately extremely cold temperatures. One of the biggest challenges in vaccine distribution was storing and transporting the new COVID-19 vaccine when and where it was needed.

To be able to cope with all the challenges associated with refrigerating pharmaceutical cargo, all major shipping and distribution companies had to plan for an “ultra-low temperature cold chain” so that the vaccines could be kept below freezing temperature. At all these points in the vaccine transportation and distribution cold chain, dry ice played a crucial role to maintain the required temperature.

On the other hand, the food industry was highly impacted due to the pandemic. The biggest risk to food security was not with the food availability, but with consumer’s access to food. There was a severe impact on the supply chains across all industries due to trade restrictions during the pandemic, prompting food manufacturers to focus not only on their food but also on storage to extend shelf life, which drove the cold chain market up.

Consumers began to store processed food products with a long shelf life to perishable food products, and limited trade movements between countries have resulted in excess cold chain storage capacities in several countries. These developments underscore the need for the food value chain to move from open-air markets to a cold-chain model that preserves perishable items for a longer duration.

These factors are expected to propel the demand for cold chains during the forecast period. The changes highlighted the need to move the food value chain from open markets to a cold chain model for the longer storage of perishable food. 

When the pandemic started, it became clear that the cold chain was a priority. The manufacturers, as well as the distributors, ensured the food supply chain would continue to work as an essential industry. The focus was later shifted to figure out how the cold chain can also be used to deliver a temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccine to people across the globe.

The pandemic introduced unexpected stresses on the food and pharmaceutical sectors, creating many immediate challenges. Yet, what was remarkable was the speed with which the supply chains reorganized themselves to ensure the continued availability of food and medical items with the help of cold chains.

India is the second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. However, the per capita market availability of vegetables and fruits in India is quite low due to lack of appropriate facilities of transportation and storage. It is also estimated that about 25% to 30% of produce, especially fruits and vegetables, is wasted.

Once originating into the cold chain, the quality of a sizable quantity of produce also deteriorates en-route till the time it reaches the consumer. Cold storage and reefer transportation are therefore essential for extending the usable life of the produce. The use of the extended life span makes the fruits and vegetables available to a larger consumer base over a longer period of time throughout the year.

AWL India specializes in providing highly advanced cold chain logistics, also known as temperature-controlled supply chains. AWL India provides refrigerated truck maintenance services to maintain the quality and integrity of highly sensitive products all the way from the production unit to their final destination.

The cold chain is the most complex part of all logistics and requires a high degree of protection. The items are handled and transported efficiently at critical temperatures. 

If you are looking for a technology-based logistics service provider with excellent experience in transporting temperature-sensitive goods, both food items, and pharmaceutical items domestically or anywhere in the world, AWL India is the best partner to work with. You can connect with us at [email protected]

Cold chain article and permission to publish here provided by Depreet Singh. Originally written for Supply Chain Game Changer and published on February 16, 2022.

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