This is just one of the findings of a recent survey of companies operating throughout the French chill chain - from producer to end user, via logistics operator and supermarket - carried out by the food industry association ANIA in partnership with the meat and dairy industries, the refrigeration manufacturing sector and the freight transport association.
The study, carried out by the Cemagref agency, tracked three separate types of product through the entire chill chain: yoghurts, charcuterie and packaged meat. A total of 480 products were 'tagged' with special sensors between winter 2001 and summer 2002, of which 67 per cent were returned by consumers to the survey compilers. These sensors were programmed to record the ambient temperature every five minutes for a 28 day period.
The results of Cemagref's assessment of the data were, for the most part, encouraging. Some 75 per cent of products passing through the entire chill chain were found to be kept at the optimal temperature to ensure product quality and safety - that is, at temperatures below the recommended maximum level of 6°C for yoghurts and 4°C for meat products.
There were distinct differences between products, however. Around 90 per cent of yoghurts were found to be kept at the optimal temperature, but this figure dropped to 66 per cent for meat products.
The survey also broke down the data for the various links in the chain. Food industry professionals were, not surprisingly, the best at ensuring products were maintained at the optimal temperature, in particular those companies operating in the refrigerated transport sector. Some 86 per cent of the products assessed were found top be kept at the right temperature.
As for retailers, the results were satisfactory, if not exactly spectacular. Some 83 per cent of yoghurts and 63 per cent of meat products were found to be kept at the correct temperature, disappointing figures in relation to the rest of the chain, where they rise to 95.6 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.
The weakest link in the chain is the end consumer, however: just 32 per cent of the products assessed were found to be kept at the right temperature by the people eventually consuming them.
The audit showed that most consumers are being let down by their refrigerators, with all chilled products stored at the same temperature even though they in fact often need different temperature requirements.
New regulations governing refrigerators, introduced as a result of the audit, should help improve the situation, as should the ongoing marketing campaigns carried out by industry professionals and French authorities, according to Ania.
"We decided to carry out an audit of the chill chain in 2000 in order to ensure that consumers are fully aware of the requirements for chilled food products," said Benoît Mangenot, ANIA's director general.
"Although it is far from complete, the preliminary results of the audit have allowed us to state that the requirements of the chill chain are broadly being met in France, by manufacturers, the transport sector and retailers. But the end users remain the weakest link in the chill chain, and consumers must be made aware that a lack of vigilance on their part could be a serious risk to product safety."