Solving The Reefer Puzzle For Perishables

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

Our large world is ironically becoming smaller with the significant progress made with globalisation. Food is one commodity that is transported all over the world, but when it comes to fresh produce, how can companies ensure they stay fresh when they reach their destination and beyond? Container shipping liner APL shares its experiences in reefer transportation.

In light of globalisation, food systems are becoming more dynamic and complex. From farm to table, little is known about the role that ocean carriers play in delivering the freshness and quality of perishable foods from their origins. In fact, refrigerated cargo or reefer container shipping businesses have been innovating to bring new possibilities to food producers and consumers flanked thousands of miles apart.

Globalisation And Its Impact On Food Systems

Globalisation is having a major influence on food systems around the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), there is now greater availability, accessibility and diversity of food. Many of these changes are closely associated with urbanisation, increasing incomes, trade liberalisation, markets integration and foreign direct investment.

As global trade in food products continues to expand rapidly, the world’s refrigerated cargo or reefer trade, in particular, has seen a steady rise in demand. A report by Drewry on the reefer shipping market expects the reefer containership fleet to grow 20 percent by 2018, up from the current six percent year-on-year increase. In 2014, seaborne reefer container cargo shipments grew 4.9 percent—exceeding the past decade’s average growth.

Among reefer cargoes, worldwide seaborne trade of perishables is a budding market. In particular, shipment of exotic fruits including avocados, pineapples and kiwi, is growing fast. This is in line with historical trends of stronger demand for perishable reefer goods as economies prosper, and container shipping companies such as APL have seen double digit growths in reefer volumes over the past 10 years.

“This growing global demand for fresh perishables is a result of the world’s changing demographics and consumption habits, as well as increasing affluence of the middle class,” explained Ng Kar Loke, head of Special Cargo, APL.

“At the same time, new reefer technologies have transformed post-harvesting practices, allowing highly-perishables fruits to ripen optimally, stay fresh and be ready for the markets while they are on board our vessels. With long distance and shipment time posing no issue for perishables of short shelf-life, more suppliers of fresh fruits are extending market frontiers."

Mr Ng added that geopolitical Free Trade Agreements have eased trade barriers and are driving demand for foreign and premium imports in economies like China.

With economic demand in place and geopolitical hurdles now overcome, it beckons the supply question: how can these perishables reach different parts of the world and still remain fresh for consumers to enjoy?

Technology—The Key Driver To Overcoming The Perishability Challenge

Technological breakthroughs have trumped giant complexities and barriers in the global reefer trade. Increasingly-sophisticated reefer solutions such as APL’s SMART reefer services, are overcoming three key challenges in shipping new varieties of perishables over greater distances. These technologies play a key role in ensuring our foods arrive at their destinations fresh and in full compliance with the stringent import protocols that vary between and within countries.

1. Atmosphere Management

Fruits and vegetables continue to breathe after harvest. As they respire, these perishables produce ethylene gas as a by-product, which accelerates their ripening process. Slowing down their respiration and ethylene production is therefore critical in prolonging their shelf-life, and preserving their value and freshness.

This can be done through a controlled atmosphere application, such as that by APL. The post-harvest life of many perishables with high respiration rates and sensitivity to ripening agents have been prolonged with the application, some by three-fold.

The asparagus is a good case in point. Among the most perishable fresh produce, asparagus is a challenging commodity to ship as it has an extremely high metabolic rate. Due to its extremely short shelf-life, it is traditionally transported by air freight. However, with the application that introduces gassing at the start to control oxygen and carbon dioxide levels within the reefer containers, the company has managed to ship the vegetable successfully for more than 16 days.

Another vulnerable fruit is the avocado. With the technology for atmospheric management, the company was able to ship avocados from Mexico to Singapore, keeping them in pristine condition until arrival after 35 days out in the seas. Also, in September 2015, the first-ever Peruvian Hass avocado shipment to China arrived fresh for market at Shanghai’s port of Yangshan.

2. Cold Disinfestation

Fruit flies and their larvae can flourish without proper management, causing fresh produce to fail import regulations. Among fresh produce, fruit, and particularly longans, lychees and grapes can be especially challenging to ship as they can easily carry pests. In the face of stringent import protocols from US West Coast ports, importers and exporters bear huge risks that authorities may refuse the discharge of these produce.

To prevent this, cold treatment of these fruits to achieve quarantine requirements forms a viable and more environmentally-friendly alternative to fumigation. Advanced cold treatment techniques today have been created to induce this cold treatment within shipping containers. By subjecting fresh produce cargoes to a specified low temperature throughout its transit, this cold treatment is able to eradicatepests carried in the fruits prior to arrival at the export destination.

In this way, both exporters and importers are able to benefit from this cold disinfestation technique with maximum reliability and success rates when shipping these products, thereby enabling customers to build confidence in them and improve their positions in the global markets.

3. Real-time Temperature Management

Fresh produce are also typically temperature sensitive, requiring 24/7 monitoring to avoid damage and maintain its integrity and quality. Modern reefer containers must be capable of controlling the desired temperature down to the narrowest of ranges throughout sea voyages with potentially erratic weather conditions.

Using advanced electronic microprocessors and leading satellite monitoring systems that form a temperature control technology such as one by APL, companies can not only measure, analyse and control cargo temperatures to maintain them at a precise set point; they can also generate useful data from it as the applications can track temperatures round the clock in real time.

Shippers can therefore access and retrieve ‘live’ information on temperature and humidity levels within their cargo’s containers. This grants them their desired assurance and added visibility of their shipments.

Mr Ng noted that while pharmaceuticals tend to use this precision temperature management system, food importers are increasingly requesting for this value-added service. One example is of a cherries exporter cum importer that used these systems to successfully ship cherries from Australia to Singapore over a transit time of 16 days.

The Next Frontier Of Reefer Shipping

As the global market continues to become more accessible and new trade deals are being formed, Latin American countries especially, are riding the wave of opportunities to ship greater varieties and quantities of fresh produce to Asia.

“There is tremendous growth potential in the reefer containership business between the Americas and Asia. China, in particular, with their rising affluence and preference for quality produce, would see greater consumer demand for imported fresh foods,” Mr Ng said.

It is therefore important for shipping lines to be more than just ocean carries, differentiating themselves by offering reefer services as ‘post-harvest’ solutions and facilitating global trade through more accessible transportation. This is also a goal that APL will continue to pursue.

For instance, the company collaborates with producers in exploring the feasibility of shipping time-sensitive tropical fruits such as dragon fruits, mangosteens and guavas, which are traditionally air flown in small quantities.

The challenge for the cold chain logistics sector will always remain, because thousands of fruits are cultivated globally and no one species behaves the same. It will thus always be a constant learning process for fresh food suppliers and cold chain businesses, said Mr Ng. Companies specialising in shipping and transportation of fresh produce would therefore need to work hand in hand with food producers so as to not only open new market opportunities, but in doing so, benefit consumers all around the world.