Seasonal flower demand tests cold chain temperature monitoring
Wednesday, May 15th 2013

With a packed calendar that typically includes numerous weddings, graduations and parties, as well as Mother's Day, the month of May is one of the busiest times of the year for the floral industry. Yet in most parts of the United States, demand for flowers does not match seasonal availability, which means that most flowers are imported from countries such as Colombia and Ecuador. To keep flowers fresh, an uninterrupted cold chain equipped with temperature monitoring tools is essential.

A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article explored the changes that have occurred in the floral industry over the past half-century, noting that globalization and improvements in refrigerated transportation have led to consolidation and reduced the amount of domestic flower growth. Today, around 60 percent of flowers sold in the U.S. are flown in from abroad and distributed to wholesalers throughout the country.

The principal driver of this trend has been an improvement in the cold chain with the introduction of refrigerated trucks, or reefers, the Post-Dispatch reported. Now, flowers can be brought in from distant locations and fewer are lost in transportation. Bob Baisch, of flower wholesaler Baisch & Skinner, described how the company would lose as much as 10 to 20 percent of its inventory as flowers flown in to the airport sat out in the heat. The realization of the importance of temperature was a major reversal of the trend.

"The colder the better, because the closer we get to freezing, the flower kind of hibernates and the longer the vase life," Michael Schrader, the floral director for grocery chain Schnuck Markets, told the Post-Dispatch. "Maintaining the cold chain is critical."

The success of the cold chain has also led to customers now expecting to get any type of flower regardless of the season, which has in turn reinforced the importance of refrigerated shipping, the Post-Dispatch added. Although there has been a movement toward more local flower growing, the timing of the holidays with the most demand for flowers ensures that reliance on refrigerated shipping will continue for the foreseeable future.

"To grow flowers when most people buy them you need a very sophisticated and expensive greenhouse system," John Hendrickson, director the flower growing program at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, told the Post-Dispatch. "We need to move Valentine's and Mother's Day to August and September."

Guidelines for flower cold chain shipments
Since moving peak flower-purchasing seasons is unlikely to happen, those in the floral industry are advised to follow strict temperature shipment guidelines to ensure cut flower freshness. According to a white paper written by George Staby of the Perishables Research Organization and Michael Reid, a professor at the University of California, Davis, cut flowers and potted plants should be rapidly cooled to an optimal temperature of 33 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit and kept at temperatures below 41 degrees F throughout the cold chain.

The authors recommended the industry push to maintain such standards and invest in equipment to ensure these temperature guidelines are met. Flowers kept at the current industry average temperature of 50 degrees F tend to respire and age three times faster than those kept at the ideal temperature. Proper temperature management can pay for itself, making temperature monitoring solutions an essential component of all cold chain shipments.

"Despite the high perishability of these crops and abundant research-based information emphasizing the importance of proper temperature management in ensuring adequate quality of flowers and plants transported over long distances, the industry fails to ensure proper temperature control during transportation," Staby and Reid wrote. "The combination of long-distance transportation and poor temperature control results in flowers and plants with inadequate longevity being sold to consumers."

They recommended improving tracking, arguing that there are "no excuses" for a lack of temperature monitoring tools. Using temperature sensors such as those offered by ITWatchDogs, those responsible for cut flower cold storage can ensure their products are kept at an appropriate temperature and are thus readily available to satisfy seasonal demand.