Just a question of time?

This white paper aims to guide, advise and illustrate the options available to those looking to import and export perishables around the world. Sometimes it is the little things that make the difference between success and failure and the more information, the greater the chance the product will arrive at destination as a welcome addition to the retail market. Market forces can affect not only the supply and demand but also the methods of transportation. You may already be transporting your fresh fish, vegetables and flowers by road or even rail. Using seafreight has some advantages in terms of costs and yet the benefits are often outweighed by the slow progress across the seas. Technology has created a whole new retail market for frozen and fresh fish. What was once considered exotic and unobtainable is now available in stores within hours of being caught in waters across the globe.

Flowers from the Netherlands and other parts of mainland Europe travel across the globe. Vegetables often make the same journeys, although there is some appreciation of timing when it comes to more exotic fruits and vegetables.

If you are trying to match your brand promises and maintain your market share then why compromise on the methods of transportation for your premier products?

Refrigeration - storage - transit

Those working with vegetables, fruit, fresh fish and seafood products understand the need for correct storage and transit times. In a world where we are offered frozen seafood it is all too easy to believe that transit times and conditions are the same for chilled and frozen products.

For those actively involved in the shipping of fresh fish and vegetables, thereal issues centre on the customers, the logistics supply chain and the handling.

In 2002 it was estimated that 300 million tonnes of produce were lost annually due to lack of use of refrigeration, mainly in developing countries (IIR and UNEP, 2002). Seafood and fish are arguably one of the most difficult of the fresh produce categories to transport, and consequently time is of the essence.

Most refrigerated, chilled and fresh produce, stored and transported at temperatures between -1.5°C and +14°C dependent on produce type, frequently will have a high quality storage life measured in weeks rather than months. This is where the selection of your logistics provider is vital ensuring the right method of transport.

The relatively slow pace of marine transport frequently requires much closer control of temperature than is achieved in road, rail or air transport if goods are to be shipped successfully.


In Europe flowers mostly come from the Netherlands, but Kenya is one of the world’s leading flower exporters with an estimated 38 percent market share in Europe. (International Business Times, April 2014.) Kenya’s horticulture industry, which generates about $1 billion a year and employs more than 30,000 people directly, contributes about 1.6 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (Kenyan Flower Council) and in the run-up to Valentine’s Day nearly 800 million flowers were sent to Europe. (The Guardian).

With global flower sales reaching nearly $14 billion in 2012 (Bob Sechler, Wall Street Journal) there have been changes in the logistics market – more flowers are now being shipped by sea from South America and Africa instead of being sent by air. In Europe it remains very much a road operation but nevertheless, what does not change is the method of preparation and handling.

Transporting flowers by container ship requires significant cooperation between growers, shippers and wholesalers so flowers 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 for a sea transit that can take up to two weeks.

Flowers shipped by air take around one to two days to get to their destination. They are cooled after harvest, but not to near-freezing, and they can experience temperature changes inside air-cargo holds or during loading.

The global flower sector has proved relatively resilient, averaging a growth rate of about 2% to 3% over the last decade despite flat sales during the worst of the economic downturn, according to FloraHolland. In selecting your logistics provider, your location and destinations will be paramount.

Airfreight has been a big beneficiary of the globalisation of the cut-flower sector, as fertile soils, warm climates and low labour costs have turned countries such as Colombia and Ecuador in South America, and Kenya and Ethiopia in Africa, into major flower producers.

In Europe, nearly a third of sales were imported in 2012, compared with well under 10% two decades ago. (FloraHolland).


Many types of chilled and fresh produce have lower temperature limits below which they are damaged. Clearly, if a particular item is transported just above freezing, just a small drop in temperature will result in frost damage. There are also many fruits which are susceptible to damage well above freezing point. This is where the right choice of a knowledgeable logistics provider can help minimise losses.

Recent data on storage life and temperatures show that produce such as oranges and apples are readily transportable by sea, whereas a very short life produce such as watercress could not survive more than a very short sea journey. Many subtropical fruits can stay fresh for a period comparable to the length of time needed to transport them by sea from their growing areas to major markets, so special attention to the quality of both produce and handling is essential for successful sales.


It is also important to remember that fresh produce can be affected by crosscontamination. The most obvious is the transfer of taint or odours from one cargo to another and the other is the transfer of ethylene from produce with high ethylene production rates to ethylene sensitive goods, leading to premature ripening. Carriers usually have clear instructions to prevent inappropriate mixing of cargoes, but care may be necessary. Talk to your logistics provider if you have any concerns – they are the experts.

Country-specific regulations

It is important to note that for some cargoes, temperatures are prescribed by the country receiving the goods. Quick-frozen foodstuffs for Europe must be
carried at -18°C 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 which have been off refrigeration for more than a specified time, regardless of temperatures achieved and that can result in wasted time, effort and ultimately the loss of the produce. In all these cases, failure to meet requirements is 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. This is a need which leads 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°C - 5°C and many new ones are being built increasingly closer to airports to ensure that the goods can be taken from the aircraft to the customer faster than ever.

The supply chain

Depending on what perishables you handle, there are distinct choices between sea, road and airfreight. Choice is often a matter of speed, cost and more importantly the type of perishables you handle.

From sea to shelf and into the supermarkets and shops as fast as possible is the aim of every retailer. In 2012 the UK retailer Budgens reported it was guaranteeing fresh fish into stores less than 36 hours after being caught in the sea. This was a development initiative to differentiate Budgens from the competition and its 36-hour promise demonstrated Budgens´ commitment to ‘real food for today’s communities’ in providing the freshest fish to market. In their own words – “Having been caught in small fishing boats in Cornish waters in the early hours of Thursday morning, the fish is bought from the local fishermen at Looe Market at 6.30am, then packaged and en route to be sold Friday morning.”

With fresh fish the main logistics issues are in ensuring the expected journey times are consistent with product life and minimising time off refrigeration. Problems are most likely to occur at export terminals and transit points, both for sea freight and air freight. In terms of road transport, traffic congestion and customs delays also need to be factored in. Proper planning and operating systems overcome these difficulties to some extent, but there is always some degree of uncertainty and it is more than wise to accept that some margin for delays should be built in to the planning process. For the cold chain, it is always a journey which has to be achieved, not just a destination.

Vegetables and fresh fruits pose many of the same problems as seafood and flowers – care has to be paid 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 user.

Talking to your logistics provider is vital for both ends of the supply chain. Fresh vegetables can often take more sturdy handling than fresh fruit and the choice of transport will certainly be affected by the characteristics of the product.

Excessive vibrations and gases can also be a concern and this is where the expert knowledge of your logistics provider comes into play. And 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 market. The same is also true in reverse with roadfreight – you have to have the network in place to ensure your perishables make the markets on time and within budget.


What matters to you is the method of transportation, the schedules and the efficiency of the supply chain. Timing is one of the crucial factors when handlin refrigerated produce as it deteriorates with time at a rate dependent on the temperature of storage. For most frozen goods at normal storage temperatures of -18°C or below, maximum times for high quality storage are appreciably longer than transport times, so there are no special difficulties.

These are the things to consider:

  • Where are your source locations?
  • What types of perishables and what you want to transport them as – fresh, chilled or frozen?
  • What are the issues likely to affect transit and delivery times?
  • Alternative modes of transportation?
  • Does your logistics provider have alternative/contingency routes/transport?
  • The final stages to consumer delivery

As an importer or exporter, you need to ensure that the destination airports you are shipping to have similar facilities, and that you only work with air cargo carriers that can provide a consistent end-to-end cool chain for your perishable produce. It is important that these facilities are available in your entire target market to ensure that your produce reaches shops in a consistent condition, regardless of where it has been shipped to.

At best, refrigerated transport can maintain quality; it cannot improve it. Poor quality produce cannot justify the costs of transportation. The reefer has become a common temperaturecontrolled transport unit used to insure load integrity since it can accommodate a wide range of temperature settings and accordingly a wide range of temperature sensitive products. It is also a versatile unit able to carry around 25 tons of refrigerated cargo and is fully compatible with the global intermodal transport system, which implies a high level of accessibility to markets around the world.

According to the World Shipping Council, about 2.1 million TEUs of reefers were in use in 2012.

This is just one solution, but there are also options for the transportation of flowers in chilled lorries and smaller self-contained chilled units for fruits and certain delicate vegetables.

The way to success has been well summarised by Hartley (2005) as follows:

  • Know your products and routes
  • Educate your team on modes of transport
  • Select the best mode using risk analysis
  • Use the best provider you can find
  • Use quality control to manage both planned and unplanned changes.

Food transportation is an industry that has fully adapted to the cold chain and can, despite the problems with air transport, be considered the most resilient, particularly since a large majority of food products have a better tolerance to temporary variations of transport temperatures.

The bottom line is that unless you talk to the experts you could be working to get your perishables transported half way across the world in an expensive, loss-leading and unproductive way.

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