Perishables are time- and temperature-sensitive products that require careful handling and shipment processes to preserve their freshness. They include fruits and vegetables, fresh and frozen meat and fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, flowers and plants, and even cosmetics.
To succeed in the perishables business, you need a logistics provider who can safely and efficiently steer your products through the cold chain from origin to destination. Consider the correct storage and transit times and conditions, relevant regulations, and the modes of transport to be used.
Cold chain – storage – transit
Timing and temperature are the crucial factors when handling fresh produce as it deteriorates with time, depending on the temperature of storage.
Most refrigerated, chilled and fresh produce is stored and transported at temperatures between -1.5 and +14 degrees Celsius, varying on product type.
For most frozen goods at normal storage temperatures of -18 degrees Celsius or below, maximum times for high quality storage are substantially longer than transport times, so there are no special difficulties. However, transport can be trickier for perishables such as flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Flowers shipped by sea are chilled to near-freezing shortly after harvest, putting them in a kind of suspended animation, and then maintained at the temperature in refrigerated shipping containers (reefers) for a sea transit that can take up to two weeks.
Flowers shipped by air are cooled after harvest, but not to near-freezing, and they can experience temperature changes inside air-cargo holds or during loading. They usually take around one to two days to get to their destination.
Fruits such as oranges and apples are readily transportable by sea, whereas some leafy vegetables such as watercress have very short freshness limits. Many types of chilled and fresh produce, and other types of fruits, have to be transported at specific, low temperature ranges. Anything above that, they risk turning bad. Anything below freezing point, they are susceptible to frost damage.
Fresh produce can be affected by cross-contamination. The most obvious is the transfer of taint or odours from one cargo to another. The other is the transfer of ethylene from goods that produce high ethylene to goods that are sensitive to ethylene, leading to premature ripening. Carriers usually have clear instructions to prevent inappropriate mixing of cargoes, but extra caution may be necessary.
Ensure that the destination airports/ports you are shipping to have similar facilities, and that you only work with cargo carriers that can provide a consistent end-to-end cold chain for your perishables. These facilities should be available in your entire target market to ensure that your products reach consumers in top condition, regardless of their shipment journey.
- Globally, fish is the top commodity moved by air, closely followed by fruits, flowers and vegetables.
- The vast majority of perishables are transported by sea.
- Fruits dominate perishables sea freight; vegetables come far behind but are still the second most important commodity.
- Fruits in general are hardier than vegetables and can therefore withstand longer sea journeys which typically last 26 to 32 days from South America to Europe.
- Typically, what is grown in the south is exported to the north. This holds true for flowers in particular, with South America and Africa as the two key export regions.
For some cargoes, temperatures are prescribed by the country receiving the goods. For example, quick-frozen foodstuffs for Europe must be carried at -18 degrees Celsius or below from point of production. Fresh fruits under plant quarantine regimes must meet tightly laid down temperature and time limitations.
Some countries may not accept frozen goods that have been off refrigeration for more than a specified time, regardless of temperatures achieved. That can result in wasted time, effort and ultimately, the loss of the produce. In all these cases, failure to meet requirements means a total commercial failure unless the goods can be diverted to a different destination where they will be acceptable.
In developing countries, there will often be a lack of suitable equipment to provide a proper cold chain, leading to the loss of a large quantity of foodstuffs. The import of any foodstuffs can be delayed by procedural and regulatory matters. Airports have excellent facilities for keeping perishable goods within the optimum temperature range of between 4 and -5 degrees Celsius and many new facilities are being built increasingly closer to airports to ensure that the goods can be taken from the aircraft to the customer faster than ever.
When transporting perishables, you have distinct choices between air, sea and road freight. Choice is often a matter of speed, cost and more importantly, the type of perishables you handle.
With fresh fish, the main logistics issues are in ensuring the expected journey times are consistent with product life and in minimizing time off refrigeration. Problems are most likely to occur at export terminals and transit points, both for air and sea freight. For road transport, you need to factor in traffic congestion and customs delays.
Vegetables and fresh fruits pose many of the same problems as seafood and flowers. Pay attention to temperature, handling and the way they are transported. As with wine, temperature shock is always a risk unless precautions are taken. Refrigerated containers and prepackaging using ice and sometimes cold gas can extend shelf life, but the reality with many perishables is that presentation is also important to the end consumer. Excessive vibrations and gases can also be a concern.
Proper planning and operating systems overcome these difficulties to some extent, but there is always some degree of uncertainty and you should build in some margin for delays to the planning process. Think of the cold chain as a journey to be achieved, not just a destination.
Your choice of transport will be affected by the characteristics of your products. Remember that there is little point in paying for a premium air service for some fresh vegetables if the costs outweigh the income, no matter how quickly they reach the market. The same is also true in reverse with road freight – you need to have the network in place to ensure your perishables reach the markets on time and within budget.
Important trade lanes
- Large volumes of perishables are flown from South and Central America to North America. Flowers dominate this trade lane. Another important commodity is fish, followed by vegetables and fruits.
- Almost equal volumes of fruits, flowers and vegetables are flown from South America to Europe.
- From Africa, Europe flies in considerably more perishables, especially flowers. Other commodities are vegetables and fruits.
- Intra-Asia is another important trade lane for perishables that are transported by air. Fish dominates this trade lane. In addition, roughly the same volumes of fish are flown into Asia from Europe.
- South and Central America provide the world with fruits. The highest volumes on the sea routes are transported to North America and Europe. These two destination regions are the most important by far, but fruits are also shipped form Latin America to the CIS, the Middle East and Asia.
- One of the biggest sea freight trade lanes for perishables (fruits, vegetables, flowers) is Intra-Asia.
- Africa, especially South Africa, predominantly exports fruits by sea to Europe, but not so much of the more sensitive vegetables, even though many African countries mass-produce the same. Often, the road and port infrastructure is simply not good enough to support exports of vegetables by sea.
E-commerce and its impact
While there will be a steady demand for fresh products around the globe with fairly predictable peaks, the rise of e-commerce adds complexity to the perishables market, makes it more volatile and poses new logistical challenges in terms of reliable and speedy delivery. DSV’s experts estimate that by 2020, 20-30% of all B2B purchases including perishables will be made through e-commerce.
Increasingly, consumers want to buy directly from producers and producers want to sell directly to the country of consumption. Direct marketing and direct shipping between countries (cross-trading) bypasses intermediaries, reducing touch points in the supply chain. It removes unnecessary costs and potential delays. At the same time, this development makes sophisticated end-to-end solutions even more important than before.
What to consider when shipping perishables
Your perishables deserve extra care in handling and shipment to get them to consumers in the right condition. Ask yourself:
- Where are your source locations?
- What types of perishables do you want to transport and how – fresh, chilled or frozen?
- What are the issues likely to affect transit and delivery times?
- Are there alternative modes of transport?
- Does your logistics provider have alternative/contingency routes/transport?
- Have you covered the final stages to consumer delivery?