Today’s advanced 20- and 40-foot reefer containers, in conjunction with other preservation techniques, create controlled atmospheres that prolong shelf life for a wide range of chilled commodities. The life of blueberries, for example, is significantly extended when they are shipped in a controlled-atmosphere container set at the product’s optimal temperature and treated with an active injection of nitrogen. This environment slows down the ripening process, allowing the fruit to be shipped to more distant destinations. Similar technology gives bananas an additional three weeks of shelf life, compared with the old method of shipping the fruit on pallets in break-bulk vessels. As a result, 80 percent of banana shipments now are containerized and able to move longer distances to markets throughout the world.
Even cut flower exporters and importers have come to rely on refrigerated ocean transport. Flowers on Waves is a prime example. As its name suggests, this company uses only ocean carriage to transport cut flowers from Africa to Europe. The key to this strategy is the ability of refrigerated containers to maintain a steady temperature, according to company director Oliver von Kauffmann. A special gel also is used to give the cut flowers necessary moisture and nourishment during transit, while preventing the formation of bacteria.
In addition to temperature controls that can be precisely regulated during transport, the quality of many perishable commodities also depends on optimal air flow, ventilation and humidity. Air flow and ventilation are especially critical for fruits and vegetables that continue to respire during transportation, a process that produces heat and gases like ethylene and carbon dioxide. Too much carbon dioxide will suffocate and discolor produce, while ethylene gas speeds up the ripening process, thereby reducing practical shelf life. Ventilation removes the above-mentioned gasses, but the process must be carefully controlled to match a specific commodity's production of and sensitivity to the gasses.
Humidity levels can impact produce quality in two ways: too much humidity causes mold or fungi and not enough humidity results in dehydration and shriveling.
Maersk has designed its refrigerated containers to address all of these issues. Air is supplied from the bottom of Maersk’s reefer containers through a specially designed T-bar floor, a technique known as bottom-air delivery. It then is circulated throughout the cargo area and cooled by passing over the evaporator coil in the cooling machinery. Humidity levels are controlled automatically to maintain the proper range for the product on board. These enhancements to perishables management allow produce to ripen longer on the tree or in the field, which improves quality and delivers a higher market price.
Advances in cold-chain technology do not come cheaply, however. The cost of manufacturing a 40-foot reefer container is $18,000, compared with $4,000 for a 40-foot dry box. To maintain the quality service that shippers and consumers have come to expect, and to accommodate anticipated new business, the ocean shipping industry as a whole needs to invest $3.5bn in new reefer equipment between now and 2015. This figure includes a replacement cost of $1.7bn for old equipment due to be scrapped during this period and the acquisition of additional new equipment needed to meet the estimated 5 percent annual growth in reefer demand.
Much of that demand is coming from the burgeoning middle class in emerging economies. Around two billion consumers today are in the middle-class demographic, but many Fortune 100 companies expect this number to swell by another billion or so over the coming 10 years. These consumers – from the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China as well as the republics of Central Asia and South America – often are highly educated. They know the importance of nutritious foods and they want to see a variety of offerings all year round. Increasingly, they also have the disposable income to pay for food that is fresh, healthy and flavorful.
What fresh foods are consumers eating now that previously were impossible to procure in many areas of the world? They enjoy grapefruit from Florida, beef from the U.S. Midwest, seafood of all kinds from Alaska, and snow crabs from eastern Canada. They also are demanding apples from New Zealand, grapes from India, avocados from South Africa (or South America or Spain or any number of places), blueberries from Chile, bananas from Ecuador, Mexican limes, pineapples from Costa Rica or the Philippines – and the list goes on.
Making investments to support this growing trade segment will have clear benefits for producers and consumers. As an added bonus, it also will benefit the environment, since shipping refrigerated cargo in ocean containers can be 25 times more CO2 efficient than moving it by air. Maersk Line already is one of the most CO2 efficient shipping companies in the world, having cut our emissions by 15 percent per container moved between 2002 and 2008. By 2017, we plan to reduce our emissions by a further 20 percent. Contributing to this improvement are the low tare weight and superior air tightness of our refrigerated containers, which lowers energy use.
For this promising trade segment to reach its full potential, carriers and shippers need to work together to ensure that necessary investments can be made. Investing today in refrigerated container shipping, at returns on investment needed, will pay off handsomely tomorrow with the opening of new and growing markets for importers and exporters and a shipping industry well prepared to meet those market demands.
Source: Maersk Line
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