June 22, 2021

How Much Do You Know About Shipping Fresh Produce?

Produce transportation is a high-paced, detail-orientated, and precise business. The effort it takes to make deliveries within a short time frame, at proper temperatures, and on time takes a lot of coordination between all parties involved. Next week, during the FreightWaves Global Supply Chain Week Virtual Event, produce transportation is just one topic industry experts will be discussing. We’re glad this important topic is getting the attention it deserves.

Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve learned thus far about shipping fresh produce.

Shipping Fresh Produce

The main objective of produce transportation is to safely and effectively move fresh produce from location A to location B as quickly as possible, while meeting all shipping requirements. This means producers, distributors and retailers must be aware of and plan for many considerations, including  proper temperatures. One way to ensure proper protocols is to verify trucking carriers are compliant with the Food Modernization Safety Act(FMSA). Requirements under the FMSA include:

  • Vehicles must be clean; able to be cleaned to prevent contamination
  • Kept at safe temperature during transport
  • Proper training required by carriers
  • Documentation of compliance

When it comes to safety, shortcuts are not acceptable. If these guidelines are not followed, then the produce transportation process becomes riskier and riskier. It’s logical, if fresh produce at a store has a strange appearance, consumers will refuse to buy it, and that can greatly impact the reputation of the store and the producer down the line.

Retailers, distributors, and producers must collaborate with trucking carriers to gain trust and confidence to rely on them for dependable produce transportation, and the carriers  want to provide exceptional service to maintain strong relationships and business growth.

Produce Transportation—Requirements

Regulated temperatures are the name of the game when it comes to shipping fresh produce. Even just a degree or two difference in the truck could lead to an undesirable outcome, especially when considering sensitive produce, like cucumbers, grapes, or zucchini. The warmest temperature recommended lies between 55 to 60 degrees. Because requirements vary  so much, the industry has divided fresh produce into 3 categories to facilitate the shipping process, from most sensitive to least sensitive respectively: light density (melons, strawberries, or lettuce), medium density (oranges, avocados, or spinach), and high density (onions, potatoes, or carrots).

Another huge factor to consider in produce shipping is timing—it is of the essence. The shelf life of produce is short and strict, and any extra time a truck remains on the road at the dock could result in thousands of wasted dollars in lost produce sales. This is why shippers spend a good deal of their time working hard to ensure they know ahead of time how freight needs to be moved and locating needed capacity within their strict time frames. One little error could lead to subpar freshness and result in lost business.

Produce Transportation—Challenges

It’s clear—produce transportation isn’t a walk in the park. In many ways, shipping requirements alone serve as challenges themselves, and yet, there are other considerations to keep in mind.

Weather conditions also play a part. Keeping an eye on the forecast is essential to ensure whether a harvest will be completed earlier than expected. Inclement weather and natural disasters also need to be monitored as they can also have an impact, from destroying a harvest to grounding a truck.

The distance a truck needs to travel from point A to point B is also of concern. The Logistics Bureau reported that fresh produce spends about half of its shelf life on a truck. This means light density items, like strawberries, have an increasingly small window of shelf life once on the retailer’s shelf.  Shipping fresh produce quickly and correctly can add shelf life to produce.

Seasonal demands also have an impact on capacity with produce transportation, especially if the crop is delayed by a few days. A pumpkin delivery on 11/2? The need for jack o'lanterns is long gone, rendering that shipment useless.

The Produce Transportation Hero—Reefers

The refrigerated truck, AKA Reefer, is the industry’s workhorse. Reefers are used exclusively for shipping sensitive freight. Certain freight can’t even spend more than a minute or two either too warm or too cold, so reefers are essential. More often than not, geographic location will dictate the reefer temperature, and sometimes in winter months, reefers will need only a small adjustment to reach the appropriate transport temperature for particular freight. In fact, cold weather outside may also necessitate that the reefer be warmed up to 50-60 degrees to transport crops like bananas and potatoes, keeping them at their peak.

Ready to learn more?

Believe it or not, we’re just scratching the surface here. The complexities involved in produce transportation are varied, ever-changing, and unpredictable. That’s why we recommend attending FreightWaves’ Global Supply Chain Week from 2/22 to 3/2. Visit their site to register, and be sure to attend their Food, Perishables, and CPG session on Wed 2/24 where they’ll discuss shipping fresh produce in detail. We look forward to more discussion on this topic.


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