The cold chain refers to the series of stages and steps a temperature-sensitive product follows from manufacturing until it reaches the end-user. In this blog, we’ll take a look at everything that goes into cold chain transportation.

What is Cold Chain Transportation?

Transportation is a significant component of the cold chain, requiring careful coordination to distribute products while maintaining temperatures and managing schedules.

Why is Cold Chain Transportation Important?

It’s the ability to maintain products at cold temperatures as they are in transport that makes it possible to distribute them across long distances. This gives manufacturers flexibility to consolidate their production facilities or focus them in geographically advantageous locations and still have large-scale distribution or product availability out of season.

What is the Role of Cold Chain Logistics?

Cold chain logistics ensures efficient distribution within required temperature parameters by specializing in the technology and equipment to meet the unique needs of the cold chain. This includes packaging, warehouses, and vehicles specialized for this purpose. This branch of logistics further benefits from working with dedicated cold chain carriers and brokers who have developed expertise in best practices and can anticipate challenges.

Cold Transportation for LTL (Less Than Load)

Even if a shipment won’t fill an entire truck, it still needs to be delivered. Temperature-sensitive items have a limited window of time and strict requirements for temperature control, which adds an extra layer to already complex standard LTL logistics. An experienced partner is critical to getting things to their destinations in proper condition.

Components of Cold Chain Transportation

cold chain truck imageSeveral things go into the planning and execution of cold chain transportation, and each impacts the ability to get items to their final destination at the correct temperature and on time. Cold chain items generally have either a range of acceptable temperatures or a steady temperature that must be maintained.

Products and Their Distribution

Typical cold chain products include food, beverages, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals, all of which are manufactured at a distance from some or all end users. These products need protection along the entire chain to avoid spoilage of food and medications, to preserve freshness of products with a limited shelf life, and to ensure quality or safety. Temperature fluctuation can contribute to foodborne illness, bacteria growth, product waste, chemical instability, and sub-optimal medication efficacy.

Packaging Products

Packaging is usually the first line of defense against physical and temperature-related damage. There are many ways to keep products in the correct temperature range, and these also keep items from breaking or becoming damaged. Some packaging can maintain temperatures without additional refrigeration (i.e., refrigerated or “reefer” trucks) and some are used in conjunction with external temperature controls. All packaging requires planning and anticipation of possible problems like delays, adverse weather, and unloading/reloading time. Package features to consider include single-use or reusable cartons, flexible vs. rigid materials, and how long the material can effectively regulate temperatures.

Active vs. Passive Cold Chain Packaging

Temperature regulation can be active or passive. Active regulation means the packaging itself generates and maintains the required internal temperature. Passive regulation maintains temperatures but cannot actively change the temperature inside the package or of its contents.

Active regulation is usually battery or electrically powered, so the package generates its own temperature control. This can be useful in very warm settings or when maintaining a very specific range (or exact) temperature is critical, and they can also include locking mechanisms (e.g., for medical storage). Despite these advantages, battery life and reliable access to a power source are limiting factors, along with greater expense.

Passive temperature regulation involves insulation with polystyrene, or the addition of gel packs or dry ice. Tape and adhesives must also tolerate cold temperatures so that packages do not open during transportation. Temperature indicator devices are another way to monitor temperatures in passively regulated packaging.

Origin and Destination of Cold Chain Products

The manufacturer must document and provide exact temperature and storage requirements to the broker and carrier, who must then carry those out. Storage before and during shipping also needs prior planning, along with correct packaging and type of truck.

Another critical factor is what happens at the point of delivery, often figuratively called the “last mile” of transportation. This is the point where items are moved from the truck into cold storage at their final destination and is often when delays or bottlenecks can occur – either unexpected or due to poor planning.

Carriers and brokers can help minimize these challenges by packing trucks and warehouses in last in/first out order, ensuring nothing must come out of the cold area in order to remove other items, and accurately estimating the amount of time it takes to unload the shipment and get it into storage at the destination.

Modal Choice

There are several options for mode of transport depending on distance and geography, including air, water, rail, and road. Most products will spend some time in a truck even if they are shipped by other modes as well. Trucking can be an economical choice, especially for partial, or LTL, shipments because the weight and size of a load determines shipping costs, so a partial load will be less expensive than a full one. Trucks also offer flexibility because routes can often be altered due to weather or traffic issues more easily than with other methods. It’s important to be aware that most carriers adhere to strict schedules and may have longer delivery times if several stops are scheduled.

Cooling Systems and Storage

In addition to temperature-controlled packaging and trucks, cold chain products may need to be stored temporarily in climate-controlled warehouses. This is especially the case with LTL transportation. For example, an LTL shipment may be trucked to a midway point on its journey, then held in cold storage awaiting a second truck to take it the rest of the way.

Providing a Temperature Controlled Climate

Just like packaging, trucks can use active or passive temperature controls. Refrigerated or reefer trucks use a combination of double-wall insulation and an active refrigeration system powered by a motor to generate correct temperatures. Double-walled trucks provide passive insulation. The temperature requirements and other risk factors of the cargo determine which type of climate control is most appropriate.

Dry Ice, Gel Packs, and Other Options

Passive temperature control options include adding dry ice, liquid nitrogen packs, gel packs, and insulating quilts in or around packages or pallets.

Warehouse Storage

Climate-controlled warehouses ensure temperature-sensitive products are maintained at the correct temperatures before and during their journey. Warehouses can be an entire building or a specially designed portion of a building, usually with an active cooling system that is monitored and adjusted to maintain temperatures.

Logistics brokers with their own cold warehouses offer manufacturers/shippers an advantage because they eliminate the extra step of locating and arranging for cold storage en route with another party.

Challenges to Cold Chain Transportation

puzzle piecesLike a puzzle, transportation and logistics always require coordinating multiple pieces for maximum efficiency. Cold temperature requirements adds another layer of complexity, including these challenges:

Temperature Regulation

Cold chain products usually come with several specifications, such as maximum and/or minimum temperatures, and limits on unrefrigerated time (especially for food and beverages, since this is linked to public health concerns). Keeping temperatures constant or within the appropriate range requires monitoring environmental conditions and the ability to make needed adjustments. Brokers and carriers also need to be aware of the risks to products and end users if conditions are compromised, allowable margins for error (if any), and any non-negotiable factors (e.g., is an insulated truck allowable or must it be a reefer).

Around the Clock Storage and Refrigeration

Temperatures must be able to be maintained 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless of their location. This means monitoring, adjusting temperatures, and making equipment repairs as needed even during off hours.

Chance for Human Error

Human error can lead to product spoilage, waste, and even public health risks. Examples of human error may include accidentally switching off motors or generators, failure to notice when equipment has shut down or failed, accidentally switching equipment to energy saving modes, or leaving cooler or truck doors ajar or unlocked.

Higher Shipping Costs

Climate control equipment and the energy and expertise needed to run and maintain them add to overall cold chain transportation costs. Contributing factors include the availability of trained drivers and appropriate shipping containers, the cost of gas, highway tolls, warehouse storage, and driver compensation.

Common Industries in Cold Chain Logistics

Many industries rely on cold chain logistics for product distribution, including:

Food and Beverage Industry

Product examples include frozen and refrigerated foods and beverages, fruits and vegetables, perishables like dairy, meat, eggs, juices, and meal kits. Destinations for these products may include restaurants, grocery, retail, and convenience stores, hotels, hospitals and health care facilities, food service operations at schools and corporations, and more.


In addition to some medications, many ingredients and materials used in pharmaceutical development are part of the cold chain. Many lose efficacy or become unsafe or unusable if stored outside the specified temperature range. Common examples include vaccines, some eye drops and aerosols, insulin, and biopharmaceuticals (e.g., blood-based medications, organs and tissues, stem cell materials). Destinations for these products may include hospitals and health care facilities, drug manufacturing facilities, physician’s offices, veterinary offices, zoos and aquariums, and grocery, retail, and drugstores.

Chemical Distribution

Temperature can affect chemical stability and physical properties of individual chemicals or mixtures. Combustible chemicals, like some acids and phenols, must be stored below certain temperatures. In addition, a chemical’s flash point is critical– this is the lowest temperature it may be stored without releasing flammable vapors into the air. Examples include alcohols, esters, ethers, and ketones. Destinations for these products may include manufacturing facilities, corporate or university laboratories, and chemical supply retailers and wholesalers.

Choosing the Right Partner for Cold Chain Transportation

Mulder Brothers teamCold chain transportation requires expertise and experience to ensure product quality and safety. There are many things to keep track of and account for, over and above standard logistics and LTL requirements. Choosing a partner that specializes in cold chain logistics means no more wondering if temperature-sensitive products are being handled and maintained correctly.

Schedule a Consultation with Mulder Brothers Today

At Mulder Brothers Brokerage, cold chain transportation is our focus. And with our extensive trucking background, you can count on us for safe, reliable transportation and carrier support. Please contact us to see what we can do for you!

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