Packaging Changes Can Improve Food Assistance Delivery, Study Finds

Packaging Changes Can Improve Food Assistance Delivery, Study Finds

Aid agencies can reduce the cost of food fumigation by changing shipment packaging practices.

A study carried out by a team from the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) program, found that changing the type of packaging used in food assistance programs can reduce spoilage, cut costs, and improve the delivery of life-saving shipments.

CITE is the first program dedicated to developing methods for product evaluation in global development. CITE’s multidisciplinary team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology evaluates the supply chains of products that are part of assistance programs.

In 2016 the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) delivered over 1.7 million metric tons of food assistance valued at nearly $2 billion to more than 30 million people in 50 countries around the world. However, USAID estimates that over $10 million worth of that food never makes it to the plates of people in need owing to spoilage and infestation.

Efforts to combat spoilage are costly and can disrupt food supply chains. It can take up to six months for commodities to move from an American farmer to beneficiaries in countries such as Ethiopia and Afghanistan. USAID spends an estimated $12 million per year on fumigation to mitigate and control infestation in this lengthy supply chain. Fumigation accounts for an estimate 5 to 33% of the total shipping time, as it requires commodities to lay inert for two to seven days after application. Yet, fumigants are not always effective, and, if misapplied, can create human health and local environmental hazards. Also, to lower the risk of product spoilage USAID may avoid certain warehousing locations and expedite shipments.

USAID wants to avoid or reduce the need for fumigation in food assistance supply chains to improve cost, quality and timeliness outcomes of food assistance operations.

In 2015, the agency initiated a study with MIT CITE researchers to evaluate new packaging types in the food assistance supply chain. The agency wanted to know whether such a change could reduce the cost and better maintain the quality of food assistance, and /or reduce the need for fumigation across the supply chain, and reduce the time required to deliver food assistance.

The study was designed to answer the question: “Under what, if any, ‘real world’ conditions do new packaging types affect the cost and quality of food assistance procured in the United States and shipped abroad?”

To provide an answer, the research explored the feasibility of using alternative types of packaging, the effectiveness of these options, and the cost tradeoffs.

First, a pilot project tested eight packaging types, with three representative commodities shipped to two foreign ports, and stored in two of USAID’s prepositioning warehouses for at least three months. About one-fifth by weight of all commodities were shipped to prepositioning warehouses.

Second, the research team gathered information from stakeholders in the food assistance supply chain, and generated additional data on feasibility and cost. The team collected and analyzed data on the prepositioning food assistance supply chain, which was defined as starting with the commodity resting in a silo in the United States and ending with the commodity resting in a stack in a USAID prepositioning warehouse abroad.

The study yielded several key recommendations. For example, USAID should consider differentiating packaging types with destination. The application of a bio-pesticide to bags was the least costly quality treatment per metric ton shipped. A cost analysis indicated that the marginal cost of this practice was offset by the decrease in fumigation costs. A number of process-related recommendations were also made. For instance, USAID should consider carrying out a much larger pilot.

“It is always nice to find a win-win, and the study identifies applications where packaging technology improves cost and effectiveness,” says study co-author Jarrod Goentzel, Director of the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab and scalability lead for MIT CITE, in a recent article MIT News article. “There is also a level of confidence that comes from conducting the study through standard procurement processes, thus exposing technologies to the sometimes-harsh realities of a global supply chain.”

Read the full CITE report New Packaging Types as Innovative International Food Assistance Instruments for more information on the research, or contact Dr. Jarrod Goentzel at:



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