Feature: Fuelling the future
Published:  13 February, 2015

Lower fuel prices may not result in cheaper costs for the meat industry, as these have to be balanced out with other considerations and savings may be made elsewhere, argue transport suppliers. Helen Gregory reports

Cheaper fuel might be winter cheer for processors with their own vehicles but has it made a difference for those using third-party logistics firms? Possibly not, as some transporters with long-term pricing structures are playing down the impact. "Lower fuel prices are welcome, but as a business we’ve run a fuel surcharge mechanism for the past five years, based on a fuel price of 95p/litre +/- 10%," explains Paul Jackson, MD of the Chiltern Group.

And ACS&T believes any reduction could only be a temporary global feature and should not offset the sector’s work to increase operational efficiencies and reduce its carbon footprint. Says business development director Mike Rice: "We take our role in the reduction of energy usage very seriously and we don’t confuse financial benefits derived from these measures with a wider goal of reducing energy consumption." 

Norish Cold Storage, meanwhile, buys power on a flexible contract and reports that some of its customers have wanted to talk about its costs coming down because energy costs are lower. However, MD Norman Hatcliff explains that he needs to maintain a balance with pricing fluctuations, as energy prices can go up or down. He adds: "I’m always looking to find efficiencies that can result in offsetting savings in one area against increases in another. This can have the effect of building stability into our charges, which benefits our customers."

Logistics firms insist they are working to make cost savings and share the benefits. ACS&T points to increased trailer lengths, LED lighting in cold stores, increased control of plant and better insulation, which it says might not deliver the benefits to the balance sheets seen when fuel prices are high, but still produce the same level of energy usage reduction, and subsequent CO2 reduction.

Rice adds: "We play our part with customers in reducing cost… through the introduction of better load scheduling, more co-operation… and by introducing strategies to take more waste out of the supply chain, such as the use of blast freezers to freeze by-products from the production process when market prices are low, instead of sending such product to landfill."

Throughout the retail and foodservice sectors, supply chains are increasingly shifting towards having as little inventory as possible, and moving it faster – having more transit operations rather than storing products for any great length of time. This ideally means fewer journeys with fuller trucks. But it’s not always possible because customers’ storage facilities dictate that only necessary stock is delivered ‘just in time’, says the Chiltern Group’s Jackson.

One emerging feature, though, is greater collaboration in the supply chain. Tesco is looking to increase its work with suppliers so it doesn’t have empty vehicles running on the road; a supplier might deliver goods into an RDC and then do a store delivery on return.  

There are also instances of logistics firms with a number of clients in one warehouse using the same truck to move goods to one location. However, the Chiltern Group’s Jackson admits there are competition implications with this: "One customer might not want another one to know what the other is moving," he says.

Increased collaboration might evolve between transporters and exporters, according to lamb and sheep abattoir and supplier Euro Quality Lambs. Executive director Rizvan Khalid acknowledges that although it currently does not use it, technology is available to track cargo via GPS, along with its temperature, from despatch to delivery. "Following an European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) statement on the temperature control requirements of meat, there is expected to be future flexibility in EU legislation," he explains. This would allow meat over the current seven degrees core temperature to be transported if it meets certain parameters, including the ability to demonstrate a decreasing chill curve during the transport journey. "The main challenge is in getting the temperature down quickly enough to legal requirements in order to export and not lose our wholesale customer a day’s sale (thus decreasing the shelf-life)," adds Khalid.

The mechanics of driving are evolving too, and those involved in the transport business are working on ways to make it more efficient. Fellow wholesale meat supplier Tadmarton Products has its own fleet of refrigerated lorries and uses tracking systems to produce KPIs for both vehicle and driver. It now plans to introduce a driver incentive scheme, based on these KPIs.

Other initiatives from ACS&T include two speed profiles for different vehicle types, as well as its work with tyre suppliers and vehicle maintenance providers – which has helped it achieve fuel efficiency figures unthinkable only a few years ago. Meanwhile, the Chiltern Group makes fuel economies by keeping full telemetry of driver records to pick up issues such as over-revving or inefficient driving.

Forking out for more high-tech vehicles can also save money in the long run, according to the Food Storage & Distribution Federation (FSDF). It says there is a push by the EU to create more environmentally friendly vehicles by making the bonnets more aerodynamic and putting a fairing on the back of a trailer. Bigger 60-tonne trucks are being developed (rather than the current 40-44t) by using two trailers together – with the benefit of producing lower energy costs per pallet moved.

ACS&T has invested heavily in 30-pallet trailer technology, as it believes this trial could help with bulk deliveries and reduce carbon footprints. Says Rice: "We believe there is a role for these trailers within primary movements. However, the majority of distribution centres won’t currently accept these trailers, so we have to be very selective about where can deploy this technology."

Meat by its nature is heavy, so very large (28) pallet trailers could exceed the maximum carrying capacity, according to the Chiltern Group.

Most of the large supermarket chains are focused on finding smarter ways to move products – and they are going large too. Asda, for example, is using chill double-deck trailers and longer semi-trailers within its fresh network. Tesco is also attempting to reduce its number of journeys by using double-deck trailers that hold 72 cages instead of 45. The multiple is also trialling its first temperature-controlled drawbar vehicle in Livingston to increase the efficiency of deliveries to Scottish Express stores in built-up areas, where it is difficult for tractor units with 13.6-metre trailers to deliver. The flexibility of an 18.75-metre drawbar combination vehicle means the truck can reach stores more easily and with a larger payload than a rigid truck operating alone – resulting in reduced road miles. The drawbar’s manoeuvrable design also has the capacity to carry 48 standard roll cages – an additional three compared with a standard 13.6m trailer.

The logistics sector has made great strides in environmental impact reduction, but it could be tough to make much more of a difference to the planet – and the bottom line - unless substantially different new technologies are introduced.

However, technologies are still evolving within trailers. Schmitz Cargobull UK has launched its own brand of refrigeration unit with a compressor unit that can run on either two or four cylinders and includes variable speed control, cutting running costs.

Humidity, fuel level and temperature sensors can all build a comprehensive picture of conditions within the trailer, while a connection with the service centre means drivers and transport managers can be alerted to any potential issues before they become a problem, according to MD Paul Avery. The units have Ferroplast panels, explains Avery: "Ferroplast adjusts to the cooling temperature more rapidly than standard GRP panels, so trailers become cooler, quicker. Ferroplast also does not absorb moisture, unlike GRP, which means that the trailer doesn’t accumulate additional weight, saving on fuel."

Fellow trailer manufacturer Carrier Transicold UK’s Vector 1950 MT (multi-temperature) systems are also helping to improve efficiency by providing a 4% increase in refrigeration capacity, up to 18,800 watts. This results in faster pull-down times and the ability to haul larger loads over long distances.

Haulage firm Robert Burns has recently bought six of these to help transport fresh and frozen meat. The units use a microchannel condenser coil that contributes to reducing fuel consumption by about 10% per watt delivered and making a 17% reduction in the unit’s refrigerant charge.

Refrigerants are still a hot topic as new legislation introducing the phasing out of HFCs took effect in January. Although the industry has years to comply, the FSDF’s Sturman warns logistics firms and cold store operators should not be complacent about the refrigerants they use as some are using coolants which have now been phased out, hoping that their systems do not break down.

And there are other issues to contend with, such as food chain security, particularly in the light of the Elliott report and horsegate. It is still a key concern and while third-party logistics providers were never the focus of investigations, according to Sturman, they work regularly with trading standards and environmental health officers. He says while carcases swinging openly on truck meat rails are less common these days, with most product pre-packed by meat processors, there can be a problem of possible contamination at ports.

Desperate illegal immigrants getting in and under trailers can compromise foodstuffs imported into the UK, and result in the whole lot being binned. It is a growing problem, says Sturman, and the FSDF is talking to the Home Office and UK Border Agency about what more can be done. Logistics firms such as Chiltern advise drivers not to stop within 20 miles of Calais, and to only refuel within the port boundaries.

They, like other transport firms, face challenges even closer to home, says Chiltern Group’s Jackson, such as driver shortage – a major challenge in the past 12 months because of new rules meaning that drivers must spend five full days in the classroom to prove themselves able to drive. As a result, some older drivers have decided to quit, he says, while the sector is also finding it tough to attract young people – despite paying pretty decent salaries. "We need to try and get young people interested in logistics as an industry," says Jackson, "and bigger companies are now looking into offering apprenticeships."

"Labour is a much bigger cost than power and I’m struggling to find and retain good labour as other industries pay more and people can choose to work in a normal environment rather than one that’s cold," adds Hatcliff at Norish Cold Storage.

Drivers also face resistance in towns and cities across the UK, which can make their jobs harder. Wholesale meat suppliers Tadmarton Products reports that delivery drivers to butchers on the high street are faced with ever-increasing restrictions on parking and some areas that have timed access.

Adds Jackson: "Urban deliveries create challenges with residents and councils who don’t want trucks in their cities. Night-time or very early morning deliveries could be one solution and we’re looking into this."