The Challenges of Fresh Produce Logistics
How is produce transported?
The produce that we eat on a daily basis has to go through an extensive supply chain to reach our plates. This supply chain flows from farmers to packaging and shipping companies, then to wholesalers or retailers, and finally to us – the end consumer. The supply chain can be surprisingly long if you don't buy local, and the goods still need to be fresh despite the length.
- Find the perfect produce
The first step in transporting produce involves examining the fruits and vegetables to select which ones are sturdy enough to endure shipping. Produce that looks perfect, free from damage and bruising, and that is under-ripe is then selected for transport.
- Determine the best packaging
Next, transporters must select the best packaging for shipment. Fruits like apples, citrus, and pears that have hard skins are good for long travel because they are sturdy enough to handle it. Softer fruits like plums and peaches, on the other hand, have to be carefully packaged and handled carefully. When selecting packaging, transporters must also consider factors like how to protect produce from temperature changes.
Produce like watermelons are transported in trays, while tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers are shipped in wooden or plastic crates and packets. Other items like cauliflower are packaged in plastic bags. Some sturdier fruits like bananas are stacked in bunches and pineapples are packed in rows with the leaves facing up.
- Load and ship the produce
Once the produce has been selected and packaged, it is ready to be loaded and shipped. Transporters must be conscious of what they are shipping, as some fruits cannot be transported together. All fruits release a harmless gas called ethylene after being harvested, and each fruit releases the gas in different quantities. This gas causes certain fruits like tomatoes and peppers to ripen and spoil faster, so they must be kept separate from fruits that release the gas in large quantities.
Transporters must also consider where the cargo is going. Most countries restrict the transport of products across borders to prevent the spread of bacteria and plants that could damage their local ecosystems and thus have different rules and regulations for deliveries.
There are three main transportation options for produce: air, rail, and sea. Air transportation is the most expensive but necessary for foods that have a very short shelf life and require expedited shipping to reach the consumer while it is still fresh. Rail transportation is often used for products that need to travel anywhere from 2-3 days, and the trains come equipped with insulated and ice-cooled cars to keep the food fresh. The slowest and most economical method of shipping is sea transportation, but this is only practical for food that does not perish quickly.
Challenges in transporting produce
Although the concept of transporting produce seems simple enough, there are many complications and each year billions of dollars are lost as food spoils during the transportation process. Studies by the Logistics Bureau have shown that a staggering 33% of food is lost or wasted and that fresh produce spends about half of its shelf life in the shipping process.
This food loss is mainly due to spoilage of the produce while it is being transported, as well as from damage that the fruits and vegetables endure that prevent them from being able to be sold.
Temperature & humidity
It is imperative that temperature and humidity be controlled and kept at the right levels to keep produce fresh and sage while it is being shipped. It is important that produce remain cool and refrigerated, as bacteria and pathogens can grow when temperatures begin to rise.
Fruits like oranges, grapes, and cherries need to be stored at a temperature from 0 to 2 degrees Celsius and with 95% to 100% humidity. Items like garlic and onions, on the other hand, need to be kept at a similar temperature but at humidity levels from 65% to 75%, as high humidity is harmful to them.
Other produce like bananas, avocados, and mangos can be damaged by the cold, so they must be kept in the range of 13 to 15 degrees Celsius and between 85% to 90% humidity.
As you can see, the parameters for keeping produce fresh and safe varies by product and is very specific, so it can be difficult for transporters to ensure they are optimizing their shipping environments.
Another common reason food is wasted before reaching the consumer is impact damages. Consumers do not want to purchase bruised or damaged produce, so if it gets damaged in the shipping process, it will never make it to the store.
Shocks and vibrations that occur during shipping can seriously damage the produce, and this is a big risk if the items are not packaged and loaded properly. In fact, if a transporter is over-burdened with produce to ship, they may load an excessive amount of pallets in one vehicle to cut costs, often resulting in damaged goods.
Data logging & the cold chain process
Although there are many challenges associated with the logistics of fresh produce, there are methods and unique technology that can be used to minimize risks and improve quality.
The use of data logging has allowed transporters to fine-tune their shipping and storage methods to ensure that produce stays safe and fresh. Data logging involves using one or multiple sensors to gather data about things like temperature, lighting, and sound to monitor the produce being shipped.
Typically, a data logger is a small, battery-powered electronic device, which makes it convenient for use during any type of shipping or transportation. The data flows through the device and is usually moved into a network or cloud in real-time, allowing transporters to take measurements in predetermined time intervals to ensure the temperature and humidity requirements are being met.
Data logging is a big component of the cold chain process as well. The cold chain process refers to the several steps, or links in a chain, that have to occur to move refrigerated products like produce from one member of the supply chain to another so that it can eventually reach the end consumer.
If the temperature is not maintained at any time throughout the cold chain process, the produce can spoil or become unsafe to eat – resulting in wasted food and money for the shipper and other members of the supply chain.
As a result, there must be clear communication and logistics planning between the operators of refrigerated transporters, the refrigerated warehouses, and the refrigerated equipment at the retail destination.
While the logistics of fresh produce are challenging and complex, monitoring each step of the process can ensure that the produce makes it to the end consumer safely and intact. Technology like data logging, and the cold chain process, make this possible and allow us to have the fruits and vegetables we enjoy on a daily basis.