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Cold Chain Basics

The economic and human value of products shipped throughout the cold chain is enormous, and transit, as well as regulatory, risks can be great. Packaging plays an important role in avoiding expensive, and sometimes catastrophic, loss of product due to temperature excursions and or damage to the packaging system.


What It Is

The “cold chain” is a carefully managed logistics network designed to maintain optimal conditions during the packaging, handling, labeling, shipping and storage of perishable items. The goal is to ensure that the perishable products are ready for use when reaching their end-user. This means that the cold chain system must maintain a temperature specific to the products being shipped.


Perishable goods that traverse a cold chain include fresh and frozen foods, live animals, medical devices, biological substances, pharmaceuticals, and certain chemicals. Common temperature ranges within a cold chain are:


  • Refrigerated (2° C to 8° C). Common for pharmaceuticals and biopharma products.
  • Controlled room temperature (15° C to 25° C). Common for medicines, cosmetics and creams.
  • Frozen (-65° C to -20° C). Common for frozen produce, certain hazardous chemicals, and biological substances.


A successful cold chain requires the support of highly trained personnel, the proper packaging, the proper transport and storage equipment, as well as efficient management procedures.


Why It Is Important

One of the biggest risks in shipping temperature-sensitive products such as vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, biological products, and certain chemicals throughout the cold chain (supply chain) is potential product loss or adulteration due to temperature excursions or package damage. According to the World Health Organization, over half of all vaccines worldwide are destroyed due to freeze-damage.


Temperature excursions cannot be tolerated. But, transit risks can be great. Tarmac temperatures can climb quickly during staging and loading, yet at a typical cruising altitude for an aircraft, temperatures can plummet to -20° C.  Natural disasters, poor weather, or human-caused events, such as delays at customs, could also interrupt the planned transport route and unexpectedly increase time in transit.