Breakdown of cold chain during pharmaceuticals transportation

Lessons from Losses 4/2010. Transport of temperature-sensitive materials such as medical products and foodstuffs has always been linked to increased risk of damage during transport of either complete or partial consignments.

Recently, those involved in the transport process have been trying to limit the risk of damage by using the latest technology in the area. This includes, for example, GPS tracking systems, which can alert central traffic control if the preset cargo temperature changes during transport, and can also help to locate stolen cargoes.

In addition, integration of GPS tracking, refrigeration log, and so-called ‘freeze tags’ can help to reduce the risk of damage considerably, and hopefully also help to establish the cause of damage.

Many of the country’s largest food and medical companies have decided to place their transport insurance with If P&C Insurance, partly because of the company’s wide knowledge of the field.

The combination of an experienced insurance company and more capable hauliers can be extremely helpful in limiting the risk of damage, but of course this can never be eliminated completely as long as human beings are involved.

In the following paragraphs we will describe and review an example of temperature damage that could have been avoided by making use of a few changes in the transport process. 

Description of damage and the transport process

In 2007, a major medical manufacturer loaded a consignment of vaccine on a truck, which had to carry it from Denmark to Ireland under refrigeration. The consignment was transported as general cargo and had to be maintained within a temperature range of 5-15°C. On arrival at its destination, the driver and the consignee in Ireland discovered from the vehicle’s refrigeration log that the consignment had been exposed to a temperature below freezing point for up to 1 hour, for which reason the consignee in Ireland refused to accept the consignment.

Later, If decided at the request of the claimant that the consignment should be declared a total loss with compensation in excess of DKK 800,000. The decision to declare the consignment a total loss was based on the fact that the vaccines were to be used on humans, and that the effect of temperature deviation on the quality of the vaccine was not known. An alternative would have been to test all the ampoules on animals, but this was neither financially nor ethically acceptable, as it would not have been possible to determine whether the results were applicable to humans.


In order to prevent similar incidents, it is first of all necessary to determine the cause of the damage.

After several investigations and checks on the refrigeration unit log, it was concluded that the cause of the temperature variation was that other goods at a higher temperature than that of the cargo space had been loaded during transport. As a result, the vehicle’s refrigeration unit cut in so that the temperature of the consignment of vaccine fell below freezing point. The main reason for this was that the vaccine consignment had been placed too near the cold air inlet and so was exposed to constant, direct refrigeration.

This incident could therefore have been avoided by two simple actions:

  1. By sending it as a ‘Full-Load’ consignment so that it would not have been exposed to external factors that could affect the temperature of the cargo space. This would also have reduced the risk of damage during handling, as well as that of contamination between the various consignments.
  2. By correct location of the consignment in the vehicle’s cargo space If the driver had located the consignment further away from the cooling inlet, it would not have been exposed to a constant and direct flow of cold air, thus avoiding damage to the whole consignment.

The above actions could have saved the claimant a lost delivery to his customer, as well as the risk of loss of market share to competitors, in addition to saving the insurance company a sum of over DKK 800,000.

Peter Bredal Mikkelsen