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Refrigerated Cross Docking: Cold Chain Freight Solutions

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Refrigerated Cross Docking: Cold Chain Freight Solutions
Transporting cold freight comes with big rewards but also carries big risks. Planning ahead for cross docking and transload services that provide refrigerated environments can go a long way in securing peace of mind.
By Natalie Kienzle
 | October 26, 2022
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Last Modified: December 12, 2023

As a service, refrigerated cross docking is growing in popularity as yet another solution to keep freight moving. Anytime refrigerated or frozen products are moved, extra precautions are needed. To meet health and safety standards, these commodities are kept within a strict temperature range. Transfer points, such as cross dock warehouses, should have facilities capable of meeting those needs. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces quality control standards over several products requiring frozen or temperature-controlled services. Refrigerated cross docking services should adhere to the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) guidelines when providing transfer services for food or pharmaceuticals. 

Learn what to look for when choosing a cross dock facility for your refrigerated or frozen products.       

refrigerated cross docking close up of a crate of apples

Refrigerated Cross Docking: The Need For Cold Storage

From baby carrots to blood bags – the list of goods that requires some form of temperature-controlled environment is significant. Many of these are products going into our bodies and therefore fall under the regulation of the FDA. 

Whether these products are coming across the ocean or just moving across town, each step of their transport is meant to be monitored closely. It isn’t just about keeping the temperature down – it’s about keeping the temperature controlled. 

One of the unique challenges of cold storage cross docking is extending that temperature control into places where it might not have been needed before, such as loading docks.

Doing so means refrigerated cross dock facilities can still provide those quick turnaround times.

However, there are two different distribution models for cross docking services in general which can affect how cold chain goods are handled.   

  • Pre-Distribution Cross Docking: When you know who your customers are from the beginning, cross docking is at its most efficient. Once the goods arrive at the facility, they are unloaded, sorted and repacked as needed, and sent on their way. 
  • Post-Distribution Cross Docking: Involves keeping some inventory at a facility for longer periods of time while waiting for customers to place an order. This may be riskier for shippers because it’s going to come at a higher price, especially for cold storage items.

Your business model is going to impact your shipping model in this case. For food items especially, you want to carefully plan out your distribution ahead of time. Are you distributing in bulk to grocery superstores or making smaller deliveries to smaller, local shops?

Answers to these and other questions will help you get an idea of what kind of inventory control you should be aiming for. 

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When Do You Need Refrigerated Cross Docking?

The transportation cost for goods traveling in reefers is considerably greater. The same goes for the use of facilities that provide temperature-controlled storage space. Before you pay the additional fees that come with refrigerated cross docking, you want to be sure you actually need it. 

The need for refrigerated cross docking depends on the sensitivity of your products and the length of time it’s expected to be at the cross dock facility.

Sensitive goods that would benefit from refrigerated cross docking services include

  • Dairy products
  • Blood and blood products
  • Ice cream
  • Fresh meat

The temperature ranges for these products are very specific and don’t allow for much fluctuation; three to four degrees at most. If they are being immediately unloaded and repacked into a waiting truck, a temperature-controlled staging area is crucial. 

Even the fastest moving crew will take a couple of hours to shift a load from one truck into another or several waiting trucks. Between the number of people working and the machinery being used, a staging area that can’t be kept at lower temperatures for the cross docking process could ruin a shipment.  

For products that will be shipped out in protective thermal packaging rather than another reefer vehicle, every moment that they can stay cold is critical. 

Other products often shipped in reefer trucks, but that might tolerate more temperature changes include

  • Wine
  • Fresh flowers
  • Shelf table medications
  • Sensitive electronics
  • Fresh fruits

These products often do well in “cool” temperatures, usually between 46॰F and 59॰F, just a bit below room temperature. 

A cross docking facility that creates a seal between the trailer and the dock, creating a closed environment, may be able to keep the temperature stable enough without having to resort to extremes. 

If items from either list aren’t shipped soon after being unloaded at the cross dock facility, they will need cold storage warehouses capable of adjusting to whatever temperature is needed. 

This may further limit your refrigerated cross docking options. There are facilities that offer refrigerated or even air-conditioned temperature maintenance but aren’t set up for frozen products. 

Want to know more about the costs involved in cross docking? Check out our article on cross docking rates.

person checking the temperature readings on a reefer trailer

Choosing The Right Cold Chain Cross Docking Facilities

Cross docking services are capable of saving your company time and money. However, if you don’t choose a facility with the right capabilities for your needs, it can have the opposite effect. 

As investors within the supply chain industry try to carve out certain advantages for themselves, you want to make sure that the cross docking facility is one that is well managed and with a good record

Pay special attention to the location of the facility, its level of technology, and its relationship with carrier services. 

For other best practices when looking for facilities, check out our article, “7 Cross Docking Best Practices When Hunting For a 3PL.”

Managing Locations

You may wish to offer next-day delivery to all your clients, but some might be too far away. Cross docking facilities operate as part of the Hub and Spoke distribution model designed to reach as many people as possible within a facility’s radius. 

If you handle outgoing orders for refrigerated or frozen products, you want to be sure of a few things having to do with distance. 

  1. Make sure a reefer truck full of products can reach the refrigerated cross docking center within the day, preferably on one load of genset fuel. This keeps costs down and might make it possible to get in multiple loads. 
  2. The location should be central enough to offer direct delivery within the same day. Many drivers for hub and spoke distribution models work on daily routes, delivering during standard business hours. 

The above would be the ideal setup, especially if orders have already been placed or you have a routine re-supply order system in place. 

For shippers working with smaller quantities, you may need to use a cross docking facility that also provides storage space. A small amount of inventory kept on location can then be sent out once orders are placed. 

Temperature Control

When it comes to temperature control, it’s all about having the right technology and having employee practices in place that allow it to function efficiently. If you have very sensitive products you want a location that can offer temperature and climate control. 

  • Temperature-controlled environment: A location is cooled or heated so that the actual temperature falls within a specific range. This temperature is maintained regardless of outdoor readings and conditions. 
  • Climate-controlled environment: A location that monitors humidity and temperature. In refrigerated environments, too much humidity can lead to condensation which can spoil thin-skinned fruits, damage electrical units, and decrease an A/C unit’s efficiency. 

If goods are only going to be at the cross docking facility while being moved from truck to truck, having just temperature control is usually fine. Any longer than that, even if only by a day or so, and you want a facility that has climate control as well. 

Temperature fluctuations are no joke in the cold chain industry and a few degrees can be the difference a successful run and a total loss. 

The highest and strictest standards for temperature regulation are set by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) and are used especially by the medical community. A facility that meets USP standards will maintain specific standard temperatures according to the following guide. 

 USP Standard Storage Temperatures

Freezer-13॰ to 14॰ F (-25॰ to -10॰ C)
Refrigerator36॰ to 46॰ F (2॰ to 8॰ C)
ColdLess than 46॰ F (8॰ C)
Cool46॰ to 59॰ F (8॰ to 15॰ C)
Controlled Room Temperature68॰ to 77॰ F (20॰ to 25॰ C)
Warm86॰ to 104॰ F (30॰ to 40॰ C)
Excessive HeatAbove 104॰ F (40॰ C)
Source: USP Packing and Storage Requirements

It should be known that USP standards are not a requirement for non-medical commodities. However, if they state they are maintaining USP standards and don’t, they may face fines by the FDA.  

As a shipper, you should also be very aware of the temperature needs for your specific products. 

Temperature Needs of Common Goods

Fresh Produce (fruit or vegetable)36॰ to 39॰ F
Dairy Products (non-shelf stable)36॰ to 39॰ F
Pre-cut meat36॰ to 39॰ F
Carcass meats34॰ to 37॰ F
Fresh seafood30॰ to 34॰ F 
Fully frozen Items32॰ F or lower
Source: BC Book Articulation Committee

Frozen foods are actually slightly easier to maintain than refrigerated foods. Items are considered frozen at 32॰ F but can be kept lower without damage to the product. If freezers are kept within USP standards, there is a safety net of at least 20 degrees should something go wrong. 

Refrigerated foods don’t have that luxury, especially meat which loses quality each time it is thawed and refrozen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that any refrigerated food that reaches and stays above 41॰ F for at least two hours needs to be thrown out

To keep your deliveries within all acceptable standards, a cross docking facility needs to meet or exceed the minimum refrigeration needs of your goods

Be wary of locations that provide temporary storage in modified reefer trailers run by onsite generators. A hardwired system with built-in HVAC and cool units, preferably with a backup system in place, is preferable. 

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Delivery Schedules

Finally, you want to make sure that delivery schedules in and out of the cross docking facility are reliable. This is especially true if products are leaving facilities in thermal packing rather than reefer vehicles. 

Once removed from a freezer or refrigerator, goods must be delivered within 24 to 36 hours. That window can vary seasonally and by region. Temperature loss can also be managed with the right type of packaging. 

Delivering frozen foods in the middle of a Vermont winter might buy you a couple of hours. The same goods and packing being driven through an Arizona summer are going to cut down your delivery window. 

Frozen products are also going to give you more maneuvering room than refrigerated products will. The bottom line – timing is critical.

Certifications for Refrigerated Cross Docking Facilities

For refrigerated cross docking, supply chain managers want to work with facilities that are going above and beyond. Reefer goods are high-risk/high-value items that you don’t want to trust with just anyone. 

There are a number of different certifications that cold storage cross docking facilities can get. These show customers like you that there is a high standard of expectation and professionalism expected. 

  • ASI Certification: Originally standing for American Sanitation Institute, ASI Institute offers different certificates for food safety. These are voluntary, so having them shows a facility going the extra mile. 
  • FSMA Compliance: This is a legal requirement for the food industry. Searching the public record can reveal if the facilities you’re considering are on track with inspections or not. 
  • HACCP Training: This is a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point training for facilities. It can serve as the basis for a cross docking facility’s food safety management practices. 

Meeting these certification requirements, especially those that are voluntary, is a good indicator of facility quality. They are refrigerated cross docking facilities focusing on customer satisfaction much like their shippers.

reefer unit storing raw meat

Keep Cool on the Move With Transload Services USA

With reefer rates higher than ever before, you don’t want to trust your refrigerated loads to just anyone. Transload Services USA is partnered with R+L Global Logistics, an industry leader in freight logistics for over 35 years. 

We help customers arrange transload services, cross docking, freight consolidation, freight rework, and more for commodities of all shapes, sizes, and temperatures. If we can’t do it, we’ll find you someone who can. 

Call us up to speak with an experienced industry expert about your transload and cross docking needs. 

Reach us today at (352) 282-4588 or get an online services quote now. 

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