Sending perishables by sea is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than by air - but do the benefits outweigh the time considerations?
Despite being lauded as the most ecologically sound method of transporting freight over long distances, seagoing vessels are perceived as lagging behind their airfreight cousins with regard to one key and increasingly important sector - that of the shipment of temperature-sensitive products.
For some, the prevailing thinking may be that the longer time it takes to transport perishable substances from one location to another means that the option must be ruled out.
However, the sea freight industry's biggest operators have invested vast sums of money into finding the technological solutions that will allow even the most delicate of perishable items - flowers and fruit, for example - to be carried in an environment that will not allow them to suffer what are known as ‘injuries', either from being too warm, or, paradoxically, too cold.
Providing a total solution from the point of origin, which can be anything from a slaughterhouse to a rural harvesting location, ensures that the client can rely on an operator to maintain a totally secure cold supply chain.
"The biggest potentials in the breakdown of the cold chain are in the pre- and post-shipping links," says David Chan, vice president of APL Global Reefer, a division of APL, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines.
"This is especially so in developing countries lacking the infrastructure to support the cold chain, such as cold storage, refrigerated trucking or rail transport. Simple processes like the lack of pre-cooling of fresh produce prior to loading into the reefer container often leads to a poor turnout of the products at the destination, despite perfect refrigeration during the shipping phase."
Transporting any product via a secure cool chain involves a significant amount of checks, from ordering, to pre-shipment, to the actual voyage and then as the product is shipped to its final destination.
Such stringent protocols are required on top of the other arrangements needed to ensure that any product - whether temperature-sensitive or not - reaches its destination safely.
For APL, several factors come into play when planning any shipment. Before orders can be confirmed, the type of equipment needed to transport the product needs to be verified, together with details of the shipment quantity and size, transit periods, departure and arrival times and market and regulatory requirements both at the point of departure and at the destination port.
Various national customs agencies have different rules regarding the shipments of such products. In the Middle East, there will often be potential threats to the cool chain that do not derive from the obvious concerns with the warmer climates.
"Many of these problems relate to the very strict quarantine regulations (e.g. Jordan) that require good temperature data from the reefer container before entry of the products is granted," outlines Chan. "Such strict entry rules apply to products such as fresh cheese, meat and fish."
While clients will ensure that APL's handlers are provided with key information, including the preferred carrying temperature, fresh-air exchange requirements and any other special handling protocols, the company's team reviews shipping data to confirm the best transport slots, as well as ensuring that over-the-road cargo weight is within legal limits and selecting the most appropriate container.
With regard to equipment, the freight operator uses computers to precisely control temperatures during shipment. Designed with microprocessor technology, reefer containers retain historic data for up to a year, while monitoring all four temperature sensors.
As a result, print-outs of temperature recordings of a particular shipment can be provided to the shipper, which detail the exact changes in climate experienced during the entire voyage.
Fail-safe additions include an electronic recorder that continues to log climate readings using a back-up battery even when containers are unplugged during port transhipment.
Assisting such technology are the container boxes themselves; an advanced, bottom-air delivery reefer airflow system delivers uniform and consistent air temperature throughout the entire cargo space.
Regulated airflow protects fresh products against moisture loss and shrinkage so that more sensitive produce will retain its freshness. "Some of the techniques used by APL to assist with transport of temperature-sensitive products include: Cold Treatment (CT), Controlled Atmosphere (CA) and Regulated Atmosphere (RA)," outlines Chan.
The Cool Chain Association
• Founded in 2003 with a common goal to establish an association that can harmonise the global movement of PTSP to the benefit of the consumer and the supply chain participants.
• Developed the Cool Chain Quality Indicators - the last manual for this standard was published in February 2005.
• Plans to continue lobbying relevant government and official bodies with the target of establishing clear standards of rules and regulations around the world.
• International membership includes DHL Global Forwarding, Schenker, FedEx and Panalpina.
• Aims to represent all members of the cool chain, even competitors.
Tel: + 352 3474 8423
The primary purpose of these techniques is to prolong shelf-life of perishable products, to maintain freshness of the products under CA & RA and to eliminate the need for fumigation or use of insecticides under CT.
The not-for-profit Cool Chain Association was established in 2003 in Brussels with the aim of developing standards that would help to guide its members through the pitfalls of transporting perishables and temperature-sensitive products (PTSP).
"The Cool Chain Association aims to harmonise the cool supply chain," explains the association's secretary, Kerstin Belgardt. "We want our members sitting at the same table, all being part of the same cool chain - despite the fact that members will often be competitors - and to cooperate in order to find the best ways of transporting temperature-sensitive products."
In 2005, the Cool Chain Association created the industry's first ever attempt to set standards for entire logistics industry, the Cool Chain Quality Indicators (CCQI).
This standard allows operators to carry out a check for conformity with state-of-the-art practice and provides a quantitative evaluation for cool chain quality.
In general terms, the measurement criteria are tailored to individual operational links, such as apron handling, long-term storage, truck and trailer transport and aircraft transport.
"The CCQI is the benchmark system, which gives guidance for best practice," says Belgardt. "The result is the best product with a longer shelf-life for the consumer and less waste - this provides more profit for the cool chain participant."
With the association specifically referring to seafood, dairy products, meats, poultry, vegetables, flowers, medicines, bio-medicals and chemicals as being particularly sensitive to changes in temperature, membership of the group is clearly a matter worth considering for regional freight operators transporting products of this nature.
From the regional perspective, the Cool Chain Association's membership already includes companies of the ilk of Emirates, Mohebi Logistics and Swift Freight International.
Where airfreight executives have recently witnessed an increase in the amount of perishable products being transported - particularly with regard to pharmaceuticals - Chan has seen similar trends, along with what is perhaps an unsurprising addendum.
"There has been an increasing volume of airfreight cargo switching to ocean freight, especially with regard to pharmaceuticals, which demand reliable temperature control and management," he observes.
Pharmaceuticals, which are temperature-tested during testing and manufacture, are especially sensitive; if subjected to the incorrect climate, these can be harmful or even poisonous.
In addition, some hi-tech materials, such as semi-conductors, also require a secure and temperature-controlled environment, and as a result, the influence of cool-chain technology has never been more important. There is an obvious link between these types of product, however.
Whereas the freight of perishable produce such as food involves the air transport of relatively cheap goods in bulk, the movement of pharmaceuticals and hi-tech products will generally involve high-value items.
So whereas a container of fruit and vegetables may only cost a few thousand dollars, a container of pharmaceuticals may run into the millions. In an environment where the price of fuel is starting to pose difficulties for a number of freight operators around the world, the cost-efficient nature of the transport of products which are more expensive is clear.
Given the context of the global economy, which has seen soaring oil prices significantly hurt airfreight volumes in Ã¢â‚¬Ëœtraditional' economies, it will come as no shock that some shippers elect to use cheaper ocean-going vessels to transport pharmaceutical shipments. It is harder, of course, to predict exactly what will happen as the oil price drops to more conservative - but still high - levels.
While there is still an argument that dictates that the most sensitive products, like flowers and food, might under certain circumstances require the speed that only a cargo jet can supply, the comparative longevity of some types of pharmaceutical means that ocean transport provides a far more economical solution.
But with data from the Seabury Group consulting firm showing that intercontinental ocean trade of perishables has seen increased flows mainly into the Middle East and Europe over the last five years, it is easy to understand why companies like APL have invested so much in their refrigerated supply chains.
APL: Temperature management
• Pre-Trip Inspection (PTI) of the marine reefer containers to ensure container meets the specifications required. The refrigeration system is tested to ensure proper operation.
• Temperature and humidity setting are checked and verified against the data given in the booking by shipper and same data being reflected in the ship manifest.
• Once the reefer container is returned to the APL container yard or terminal after the container has been stuffed with the products, the temperature data will be downloaded from the reefer container before loading onto the vessel to verify the integrity of the reefer unit.
• Temperature data of the reefer container onboard the ship will be checked at regular intervals to ensure proper functioning of the unit. Immediate repairs will be undertaken by the reefer mechanic on board the ship should there be any breakdown.
• If there is need to tranship the reefer container at a transhipment port, power interruption cannot exceed 30 minutes and both the ship crew and port operators have to ensure the quick and smooth operations with minimal power interruptions.
• Once the reefer container reaches the destination, the temperature data will be downloaded and checked to ensure the desired temperature, humidity and other factors have been properly managed before releasing the container to the consignee.