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by Monica Humbard

Industry experts urge changes in distribution chain to ensure the best floral products possible for consumers.

Awareness of a problem does not guarantee someone will take action to solve it. For years, experts have stressed the importance of improving the conditions along the floral distribution chain. Repeatedly they have pointed out weaknesses in the chain, much of the problem centering on temperature. While some experts say awareness has increased, little—if any—change can be documented.

As a result, these experts say, consumers are not receiving the best quality floral products possible, hurting the industry’s bottom line. “Consumption trends indicate the results of selling poor quality crops—per-capita sales of cut flowers in the United States are low and even may be declining,” according to “Improving the Cold Chain for Cut Flowers and Potted Plants,” a new white paper co-authored by George Staby, Ph.D, president of Perishables Research Organization in Pioneer, Calif., and founder of the Chain of Life Network and PRO Institutes, and Michael Reid, Ph.D, professor and postharvest horticulturist at the University of California, Davis.

While the costs of not properly maintaining the distribution chain are great, the improvements necessary to strengthen it come with their own costs as well. The white paper says improvements necessary include adding equipment such as adequate refrigerated storage, sealed and trailer-height dock doors, refrigerated docks, marine containers and precoolers.

However, the authors of the white paper explain, making these changes will pay off. Research findings from 1978 (adjusted for inflation) show that with proper temperature management, the average net profit increase at retail level is about 12.2 cents per flower bunch. This includes the cost of equipment and implementing proper temperature handling techniques.

The authors also discuss a major cut flower and greens grower who recently lowered cooler temperatures from an average of 36 F-38 F to 33 F-34 F. Not only did this reduce shrinkage and claims but it caused an average increase in revenue of 2 cents to 5 cents per bunch.

Other industries—produce, meat and dairy—have been able to develop systems to maintain the cold requirements necessary in their distribution systems while floral continues to struggle. Dr. Staby says the problem is that the floral industry includes more players than those other industries, making it less vertically integrated.

Terril A. Nell, Ph.D, AAF, chairman of the Environmental Horticulture Department and professor of floriculture at the University of Florida, Gainesville, points out other floral industry challenges. “Unfortunately, there are too many people/companies at all levels who continue to deny that cooling to 35 F is worth the time or the effort. Flowers need to be precooled and kept cold always,” he says.

Dr. Nell also believes there is “too much effort to blame someone else for flowers not being cooled properly. There must be much greater responsibility from all segments of the industry to assume responsibility to cool flowers properly at each segment of distribution and display.

“Only then will sound scientific facts become institutionalized in the floral industry,” he continues. “Good temperature management must be combined with the very best care and cleanliness practices to extend flower longevity, build customer confidence in our products, increase profits and sell more flowers.”

But, despite the roadblocks, efforts continue to educate those in the industry. Dr. Nell says, “With the articles that Mike Reid and I have written, the white paper by George Staby and Mike Reid, and the information written by the University of Florida postharvest team, there is much more talk about the needs for proper cooling than in the last 10 years.”

In most cases, according to the authors of the white paper, after harvesting, cut flowers and potted plants (excluding tropicals) should be cooled rapidly to 33 F to 35 F and maintained at no higher than 41 F throughout the cold chain. However, in reality, they point out that both domestic and imported cut flowers are often 10 F to 40 F above their ideal holding temperature when they arrive at transportation or consolidation facilities. Potted plants are usually even warmer. One yearlong study of 58 growers at a consolidation dock revealed that cut flower temperatures were all above 43 F and averaged 51 F.

The authors insist that any flowers and plants that are warmer than 41 F should not be transported but rather cooled to the proper temperature before transport or returned to the shipper. Although a percentage of the vase life already is lost, Dr. Staby says some of the life can be salvaged by returning the product to the proper temperature.

Drs. Staby and Reid believe data loggers or time/temperature indicators that have been proved effective for floral crops should be required in all shipments to document cold-chain issues, especially since the cost is minimal per box.

The authors also support probing cut flower heads and potted plant growing media, recording temperatures and reporting all results to growers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers and transportation companies in a timely manner. They address the possibility of using third-party inspectors for this job.

At the retail level, Dr. Staby believes research is needed to determine whether open or closed coolers sell more flowers. Once this is determined, he believes coolers could be designed to improve conditions at the store level.

Precooling continues to be one of the weak links in the distribution chain. Many companies don’t have the time or the facilities to handle it, the authors contend.
To ensure that adequate time is allowed for necessary cooling, the authors recommend day-ahead harvesting by growers and day-ahead ordering by purchasers. “Cooling them overnight prior to shipping would allow the crops to be cold at the time of transport,” they explain.

This also allows growers and shippers adequate time to properly treat flowers and plants with appropriate anti-ethylene, anti-yellowing, flower food and anti-transpirant products.
Dr. Staby explains that most problems with proper precooling and treatment occur during holiday periods, when retailers want products immediately, and therefore, they are rushed through the distribution chain. With the current distribution system, Dr. Staby says, it is unrealistic to expect proper cooling and treatments to be carried out when products are moving so quickly. However, he insists, it is not unrealistic to expect products to ship quickly and receive the proper care if the right changes are made to the distribution chain.

Dr. Nell says the University of Florida is evaluating new cooling techniques that rapidly cool flowers before shipment. However, he says, at this time, the results are too preliminary to make any judgments about the value of the technology for the industry.

The white paper’s authors recognize that trucking companies “do not want to perform what they believe to be grower/shipper precooling duties, do not have the time (especially for late shipments) and/or find it difficult to refuse boxes when their paying customers demand that they be transported, regardless of the product temperature.” The authors support that “transportation and/or third-party companies should offer precooling services as profit centers to ensure that all boxed flowers and plants placed in trucks are at 32 F to 41 F.”

Dr. Nell supports strongly the need for flowers to be cooled properly. He says, however, “Let’s hope we do not have to institute industrywide temperature monitoring in order for the floral industry to undergo the required changes in temperature management,” he says, “because the cost to constantly monitor temperature is an expense this industry cannot bear at this time. The industry should adopt the concept of the famous Nike ads: ‘Just do it!’ And, with temperature management of flowers, just do it right—cool to 35 F at all segments of distribution and sales.”

The authors of the white paper clearly state that poor transportation temperatures reduce vase life, increase respiration rates and increase heat production. Studies reveal that flowers exposed to 50 F experience three times the respiration rate as flowers at 32 F, making them age that much faster. A study of roses revealed that vase life decreased by 4.5 days (at 68 F) for those exposed to 50 F during transportation.

Because of temperature control and less cost, transportation by truck is the preference whenever possible, Drs. Staby and Reid say. Studies have shown that passenger airplanes are less effective because, despite the transport time of hours vs. days, the temperatures at which floral is exposed are too high.

At this time, none of the overnight delivery services, like FedEx, DHL and UPS, offer integrated refrigerated services for floral. The authors say using ice packs and polystyrene insulation sheets to cool products is like a game of “Russian roulette” because the temperatures to which the products are exposed are sometimes too high for these cooling methods to be effective.

Cut flowers shipped to the United States on nonstop air flights do well if they are handled properly, the authors say. Problems start to occur if one or more plane transports are necessary. In these cases, proper temperatures normally aren’t maintained during transport, Drs. Staby and Reid say.

Studies on the effectiveness of refrigerated marine containers have shown promising results, the authors say. Dr. Staby says a series of shipments using marine containers from Quito, Ecuador, to Southern California revealed comparable vase life results to those of nonstop air shipments, even though the flowers were in the marine containers for 11 to 13 days and the air shipments took only 10 to 18 hours. These containers maintain the proper temperature of the flowers and plants regardless of transfers because the containers remain sealed. The authors encourage offshore growers and shippers, as well as growers exporting to certain markets, to explore this method further.

When it comes to ethylene, maintaining low temperatures also is important. Temperature drastically affects how flowers and plants react to ethylene exposure. The lower the temperature, the more ethylene it takes to damage products. One study showed that waxflowers, which are extremely sensitive to ethylene, lost 40 percent of their blooms when exposed to only 1 part per million (ppm) of ethylene for 12 hours. However, those held at 35 F and treated with 100 ppm of ethylene for 48 hours had no flower fall.

Dr. Staby says the primary problem with ethylene is found at distribution centers, where banana ripening rooms can be “killer” for floral.

Botrytis, or gray mold, is a common destructive fungus that can affect nearly all flower types. The authors of the white paper acknowledge that the organism can still survive at temperatures as low as 30.5 F. However, they stress that maintaining proper temperatures along the distribution chain can reduce Botrytis growth. The disease thrives in warmer temperatures and in moist conditions. When temperatures swing during the distribution chain, condensation can form. Warm temperatures increase respiration rates, which also result in moisture formation. As a result, the likelihood of Botrytis developing goes up under these conditions.

The first step to improving the process will be getting buy-in from the industry, the experts agree. “We must change the industry philosophy to meet consumer demands for quality products,” Dr. Nell insists, “which will require dedication, discipline and commitment to temperature management; proper handling; and cleanliness by growers, importers, wholesalers and retailers.

“All segments of the industry must embrace the very best practices for every flower grown and sold,” Dr. Nell continues. “Then, flower quality will improve for every flower sold and the consumer can be confident of receiving high-quality, long-lasting flowers with each purchase.”

While there is much to be accomplished throughout the distribution chain, the white paper’s authors believe purchasers—primarily large wholesalers and mass marketers—must “drive” these improvements. They write: “Only when these companies that pay for the products and transportation services start making demands will temperature management improve significantly.”

You can reach Monica Humbard at or by phone at (800) 355-8086.

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