December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Stay cool, brother

In the hectic world of e-retailing, you have to keep cool-especially when food is concerned. A U.K.-based company is about to hit the streets with an alternative way to keep perishable foods cool during delivery. Friobox Express will be in Great Britain and France this month with its chilled box that it says can maintain a static temperature for eight to 48 hours. In addition to a manufacturing site in Barcelona, Spain, the company is set up to manufacture in Guadalajara, Mexico, for North American distribution.

About three years ago the company began researching a way to build a shipping container to keep biomedical material frozen or chilled for as long as four days. In April it came out with a chilled box that will keep contents at 32 to 41°F for 96 hours. Its frozen box keeps material at -13 to -3°F. Friobox Express Marketing Director Brendan O’Donoghue says the medical boxes won two European packaging awards.

Food distributors asked the company to come up with an economical box to keep perishables cool. In the U.K and Europe, as in the U.S., people are working longer and have less time for shopping, O’Donoghue says. This is causing growth in the grocery delivery market. The company has agreements to supply major supermarket chains in France and the United Kingdom. The company is also developing a similar system for moving frozen food.

The Friobox works like this: a food supplier fits a special liner into its boxes or into containers from Friobox. The liners can be made to order, but come in the standard 35-liter-capacity size of 20-in. long by 12-in. wide by 14-in. tall. The liners store flat. Because of pending patents, O’Donoghue says only that the coolant is composed of non-hazardous elements. The coolant takes about 24 hours of refrigeration to reach and hold the desired temperature. The coolant fits between the liner and the food items. A layer of plastic separates the coolant from the perishables. The box is then closed and shipped. “It’s incredibly simple,” he says.

The coolants can be reused as much 40 times and the units cost $16 each. O’Donoghue says the cost might change when more boxes are produced. With worldwide capabilities, it should not take long to supply North America if the demand is there, he says. “We can get moving in the States very quickly.”

Packaging used by UPS customers to ship perishables can keep items chilled or frozen from eight to 48 hours. The challenge is keeping costs low. It is usually too expensive to return ship empty packaging materials. Consequently, shipping materials have a one-way, one-time use.

UPS customer Omaha Steaks ships its frozen meat to customers in polystyrene containers kept frozen by dry ice. Ron Eike, Omaha’s director of operations, says that depending on how much dry ice is used, the meat can stay frozen for as long as five days. Omaha’s shipping containers and dry ice cost less than the $16 cost of the Friobox.

Peapod, the home-delivery grocery service, uses totes made of sturdy plastic. These totes are sometimes lined with Styrofoam and use dry ice for frozen foods and ice packs for chilled foods. Peapod will not divulge the cost or life span of its cooling system. It says the system keeps items frozen or chilled for about six hours.

Webvan, also a home-delivery grocer, uses plastic totes to move its frozen and refrigerated foods. Unlike the Peapod system, Webvan delivery trucks have refrigerated cargo sections.

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