Shipping Produce Is No Easy Task: Here's How It Works

Shipping Produce

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In 1954, Swanson revolutionized the food industry by introducing frozen dinner kits. Initially, Swanson produced 5,000 TV dinners, expecting modest growth. Within a year, they had sold over 13 million TV dinners. 

People were hungry for convenience, and the market listened by expanding their logistical operations with refrigeration technology. By 1959, American consumers spent over $2.7 billion annually on frozen foods. None of this would have been possible without a logistical shift in more reefer and refrigerated truck technology.  

Today, times have changed again. With more health-conscience consumers, a global pandemic affecting every industry, and higher obesity and heart disease levels, fresh fruits and vegetables are making a comeback. Many consumers are opting for organic, locally grown produce, and supply chain companies must adapt to an already precarious process. With the advent of HelloFresh and other meal delivery services, fresh produce has become “in” again.  

Shipping companies must meticulously plan shipping routes and consider weather patterns, FMSA regulations, proper packaging, produce origin and seasonality, truck temperatures, and shelf life. This article discusses how shipping produces works and covers the many steps and requirements companies have to consider to transport produce from farm to market.


Produce Shelf Life

When a company ships produce across the country or internationally, they are racing against a strict clock called shelf life. The shelf life of produce determines how long fruits or vegetables stay fresh and this varies due to a variety of factors. One of these factors is food density. This term should not be confused with ‘nutrient-dense foods’ or anything related to nutrition or weigth. The shipping industry classifies certain foods as high, medium, or light density based on their shelf life.


High-Density Foods

High-density foods have a shelf life of about seven days and are the most reliable for long-distance travel. Potatoes, Carrots, and Onions fall under this category, likely because they have tougher skin. Apples, Cabbages, Celery, and Garlic, are also high-density produce.


Medium-Density Foods

Medium-density foods have a shelf-life of 2-4 days and typically require colder temperatures when transported. Think of fruits like oranges, peaches, watermelons, or vegetables like broccoli, tomatoes, and spinach.


Light-Density Foods

Light-density foods have a shelf-life of 1-2 days, making these foods the most critical for refrigeration and quick delivery. These types of foods are excellent candidates to be locally sourced. Strawberries, grapes, cucumbers, and green beans are considered light-density foods.  

Shelf life not only affects taste but also affects its appearance. As anyone who shops for produce can tell you, ugly vegetables fall to the bottom of the pile. 

For this reason, shippers must work closely with truckers to ensure punctual deliveries along the way. Clear communication between the shipper and trucker can be the difference between a truckload of fresh produce or a million-dollar mistake.


Truck Temperatures

In the cold chain logistics world, not all cold temperature is created equal. With perishable foods, exact temperatures matter. Different produce requires a specific temperature range. Even a change of one or two degrees can potentially spoil produce. Reefer containers are ideal for moving produce because their temperatures can be manually adjusted to stay within a target range during transportation. Reefer containers also have multiple temperature zones to transport various produce types simultaneously.  

Shippers should take care to include the temperature on the Bill of Lading so the destination can coordinate with their trucker to have a dedicated trailer ready.  

The following ranges highlight how different products require specific temperatures.

  • 32-36℉ - apples, strawberries, salad greens, grapes
  • 38-40℉ - avocados, cranberries
  • 40-45℉ - green beans, honeydews, potatoes
  • 45-50℉ - cucumbers, eggplants, lemons, watermelons, grapefruit from FL or TX
  • 55-60℉ - young potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, grapefruits from AZ or CA

Another factor to consider is the outside temperature. If routes pass through states or countries with extreme weather, this may impact the reefer trailer’s temperature. Sometimes, a truck may need to drive through winter weather and adjust the trailer temperature, so the range is warm enough. These instances have to be taken into account when traveling cross country or overseas.


FMSA Regulations

In 2011, President Obama signed the Food Modernization and Safety Act to regulate and set safety standards in handling all foodstuff. The Act took a stance to proactively prevent foodborne illness and diseases by laying down sanitary standards for transporting and handling produce. Among these standards, four major components arose.


Clean Vehicles

All vehicles handling produce must be thoroughly washed and sanitized before and after deliveries to prevent contamination of any kind.


Controlled Temperature

Drivers must acknowledge temperature requirements for their shipment and report the temperature before, during, and after delivery. They must manually adjust the temperature as needed to make sure the produce does not spoil and must report any irregularities or temperature shifts.


Compliance Documents

Specific documents must be provided to drivers before delivery and kept for recordkeeping purposes. These documents cover vehicle cleanliness, the trailer’s temperature, sanitation records, and procedure records.  

Shippers should look for FMSA-certified trucking companies that understand every required standard. Truckers should also regularly communicate with shippers to provide updates and any stalls along the way.


Seasonality and Produce Origin

Seasonality is a significant component of produce logistics unless you live in California, where most fruits and vegetables grow all year. If that’s not the case, you have to consider what season yields which fruits and vegetables.   For example, Wisconsin produces cranberries from mid-September to mid-October. New Jersey’s cranberry season lasts through mid-November.  

If your client’s final destination is on the East Coast, it makes more sense to source your cranberries from New Jersey. Change the destination to the Midwest, and Wisconsin would be a better option.  

Produce origin is also a critical factor regarding shelf life. Tighter shelf lives mean suppliers should be as close to the final destination as possible. If you have the option of sourcing strawberries from a local farm 4 hours away from the final destination versus a full day’s trip, chances are you’d source your strawberries from the farm instead.  

Produce origin is also another factor consumers consider when shopping. More and more buyers are looking for locally grown, organic vegetables. Sourcing your supplies from local farms can leverage your competitive edge with buyers.    


Final Thoughts

This article is just the tip of the produce iceberg. With more consumers demanding fresh fruits and vegetables as part of their daily diet, produce logistics is at an all-time high.    


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