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.
TALLYING THE COSTS
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
ROADBLOCKS TO CHANGE
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
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.”
IMPROVING TEMPERATURE CONTROLS
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.
THE NEED FOR PRECOOLING
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
You can reach Monica Humbard at
firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (800)
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