How to design e-fulfilment for fresh food

Estimated reading time: 6 min

The COVID pandemic is spearheading the online grocery market. But delivering fresh products, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and dairy, to the consumers doorstep requires a completely different approach than selling them in brick-and-mortar supermarkets. For example, think of regulatory requirements or storage conditions during transport. Together with retailers and packaging suppliers, Wageningen University & Research co-designed solutions for this. In this article, we highlight the 6 most important topics.


More and more consumers are buying online and the growth of the online market is limited by the ability to supply this growing demand. Part of this rapid growth is the broadening of assortments to offer more fresh products. From a logistics perspective, the online retail channel requires another approach than the brick-and-mortar supermarkets. E-fulfilment centers, including fully automated (robot based) storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) are developed in rapid pace to cope with the increasing demand for online groceries.

The increase of assortment and home-delivery of fresh produce is also introducing new challenges for retailers. The storage systems developed for dry products require modification to facilitate the storage of different fresh produce at optimal conditions and new (delivery) packaging solutions are required as well.

The need for novel solutions of fresh e-commerce market is clearly upcoming. Recently we at Wageningen University & Research have observed a steep increase in research demand to co-design solutions together with retailers and packaging suppliers. Through the guiding questions below, we present six relevant topics.

What are the regulatory requirements on food safety & hygiene, and how to manage?

To answer this question, it should be understood that in e-commerce the retailer has an extended responsibility for the delivered products. This requires revisiting the food safety and hygiene standards, to ensure that the consumer can consume the product safely. The supply chain and infrastructure used should be designed in such a way, that this food safety is ensured to the maximum extend.

In recent projects, we have reviewed relevant regulations and standards including an assessment of who is responsible for the e-fulfilment storage system: the producer of the system or the user of the system? Legal requirements for the US and European market became clear on aspects such as HACCP and hygiene guidelines, materials in contact with food and risks and preventive measure against pests. For example, the producer of the system is not responsible for cleaning the system (the owner is) but has to ensure the system can be cleaned and provide instructions how to clean the system.

Photo by Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock.com
Photo by Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock.com

How to clean a fully automated system when food is stored?

A practical question, but very relevant. In order to store food in a safe manner cleaning is essential. But not all cleaning agents are allowed. And how to clean fat, protein or sugar residues?

In recent projects we guided system builder on cleaning and disinfection procedures for different types of food categories like meat, fish and dairy. What detergents are applicable for what type of fouling. How external factors like time and temperature affect the cleaning and what strategies can be used to counter microbiological hazards. For example, a common food borne pathogen is Salmonella spp. what disinfectant to use (chlorine, alcohol, etc) and what is the effect on the system itself like corrosion and staining.

How to handle and deliver perishable products?

Fresh product such as fruits and vegetables, are (highly) perishable. In comparison with traditional supply chains, we observe the mixing of ordered fruit and vegetables by retailers early in the supply chain. It should be recognised that these products may accelerate the ripening of each other and therefore packaging solutions should be designed in such a way that the shelf life of perishable products is optimised up to customers’ expectations.

What are optimal storage conditions?

Every fresh product type, requires different storage conditions for optimal preservation and shelf-life extension. To ensure that the marketability of products is optimised, we observe the need to optimise the design of storage systems to facilitate for the requirement of the fresh product.

In recent projects we determined optimal storage conditions of numerous crops and estimated what the storage life is when stored in sub-optimal conditions. Bananas should be stored around 13°C and apples at 1°C.

Photo by Juice Flair/Shutterstock.com
Photo by Juice Flair/Shutterstock.com

How long can food remain ‘safe’ in non-optimal conditions?

Inside the e-fulfilment storage the food products are kept at optimal storage conditions. However, it is inevitable that when the item is retrieved from the systems it is kept in other conditions then optimal. This time period depends on the control of the system and is variable. This is a window of opportunity for microbes to spoil the product when kept long enough outside the storage room.

Our knowledge on microbial growth and food pathogens has helped system builders to adapt the control of the storage system incorporating tolerance levels for time outside optimal conditions. This lowered the risk of system induced spoilage of food considerably. For example, a safe boundary for Salmonella spp. is lower than 3°C where a single period of two hours outside temperature control is not directly an issue.

How to use algorithms to innovate inventory management?

Which items to pick first? Every fresh product has its own biological process going on and for example the shelf life differs per product in a batch. The availability of quality and climate data in real-time and the ability to physically act upon that information transforms inventory management and warehouse operations. Recent development allows for the quality determination and predication of fresh fruits and vegetables based on near-infrared solutions and smart algorithms. But also, the introduction of smart packaging which allows for shelf life predication through IoT connectivity. This fundamentally changes the way inventory of fresh products is managed in the near future and better suit the product to the consumer wish; adding extra value. The advantages can range from quality-based dynamic stock and warehouse management, quality-driven demand forecasting, dynamic sales decisions (e.g., soon –to-be-perishable product selected for a closer market), dynamic pricing based on current quality, early detection and removal of deteriorating, damaged or diseased products, maintenance of uniform storage conditions specific to the product requirements.

Photo by Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com
Photo by Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com