Keeping Cool: Challenges for Containerised Reefer Trade



Professor Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Hofstra University, New York, USA; Professor Theo Notteboom, Dalian Maritime University, Dalian, China, and ITMMA, University of Antwerp, Belgium


Globalising the chill

Temperature control is a component of containerisation that has continued to rise in importance with international trade. As a number of countries focus their export economy around food and produce production, the need to keep these products fresh for extended periods of time has become more salient. Growing income levels have seen a change in dietary trends, with a growing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as meat and fish, and producers and retailers have responded with an array of exotic fresh products originating from around the world, taking advantage of seasonality. Any major grocery store around the world is likely to carry tangerines from South Africa, apples from New Zealand, bananas from Costa Rica and asparagus from Mexico. Alone, the US imports about 30% of its fruits and vegetables, and 20% of its food exports can be considered perishables.

Reefers and the cold chain industry

A cold chain industry has emerged to service these commodity chains. Refrigerated containers, also known as reefers, account for a growing share of the refrigerated cargo being transported around the world. In 1980, 33% of the refrigerated transport capacity in maritime shipping was containerised, this share rapidly climbed to 72% in 2013. Because of the additional insulation, and particularly because of the power plant, a 40-foot reefer costs in the range of 6 times more than a regular container. Reefer containers are competing with reefer ships, and the former are rapidly gaining market share. Traditional systems built around reefer ships, where food sits on pallets in a refrigerated hold and is delivered to a cold storage facility on arrival, are shifting to systems to handle goods in containers with refrigeration units, sometimes bypassing cold storage on arrival. The world’s refrigerated ship fleet is fast shrinking as a new generation of container ships with a large reefer capacity transforms how fruit, meat and other perishable foods move around the globe.

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