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Fresh Daily

The miracle of modern logistics and refrigerated cargo helps satisfy the world’s growing demand for year-round perishables. 

Dole Maya
Courtesy Dole

Published Jan 1, 2024 10:08 PM by Tom Peters

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2023 edition.)

Temperature-controlled (reefer) cargoes are part of a vast ecosystem that includes rail and truck to ensure the daily delivery of fresh perishables to a store near you. Detailed planning of products moving from origin to destination is complex but surprisingly efficient. It’s a miracle of modern science and technology (read: maritime transportation) how cheap and efficient it’s become to ship, say, blueberries from Peru to the U.S. in the middle of winter.

Despite changes in global weather patterns caused by climate change and their negative impact on the world’s agricultural output, the maritime ecosystem continues to work at full speed with ports and terminals expanding their reefer capacity in response to growing demand.

Sunshine State

“Port Tampa Bay continues to see strong growth of its refrigerated cargo business,” says Wade Elliott, Senior Vice President for Marketing & Business Development, “expanding the range of commodities, origins and destinations moved through Florida’s distribution hub.”

Products range from bananas, pineapples, juice, lemons, limes, plantains, mangoes and citrus oil to a variety of vegetables, poultry and seafood. The Tampa Bay/I-4 Corridor is Florida’s hub for the food and beverage sector. As the closest port to major regional distribution centers, Port Tampa Bay has state-of-the-art cold storage and container terminal facilities.

Expanding container services with Latin America, Mexico and Asia has provided customers with new and improved connections. Bounty/Chestnut Hill Farms ships pineapples from Costa Rica using Seatrade’s SeacatLine service, which also carries juice for long-time Port Tampa Bay tenant Tampa Juice.

Dole Ocean Cargo Express offers service to Tampa from Honduras and Guatemala, delivering bananas and pineapples as well as refrigerated and dry containerized cargo for third-party customers. Linea Peninsular offers containerized and breakbulk service from Progreso, Mexico. To and from Asia, direct weekly services are provided by Maersk, ZIM, MSC, COSCO, CMA CGM and Evergreen. Transshipment export connections are offered throughout Latin America.

Beneficial cargo owners can see significant savings in supply chain and distribution costs as truckers can now make as many as three or four roundtrip deliveries per day from Port Tampa Bay to their distribution centers, says Elliott.

CSX Rail operates its Express Greenway service, offering customers four-day transit times from Tampa to the northeastern U.S. using a dedicated fleet of 53-foot refrigerated trailers. Perishable containerized cargoes arriving from Latin America are transloaded at the Port Logistics Refrigerated Services terminal onto CSX’s refrigerated trailers destined for the Northeast. Port Logistics Refrigerated Services operates a state-of-the-art, 135,000-square-foot, on-dock cold storage warehouse at Port Tampa Bay.

PortMiami added a reefer service this year when ZIM’s new Colibri Xpress, a premium line from South America’s West Coast to the U.S. East Coast, began calling the port. ZIM will deploy six 1,700-TEU (20-foot equivalent units) vessels with increased capacity for refrigerated cargo.

Nissim Yochai, head of ZIM’s Latin America Business Unit, notes, "Our new ZIM Colibri Express (ZCX) line was designed recognizing Miami as a central port serving the Latin America trade. ZCX is focused on agility, efficiency and reliability with special emphasis on refrigerated cargo."

PortMiami is planning changes to improve cargo flow with a project that will include both on-port and off-port planning and design. It will include development of an inland cargo center to handle 50 percent more volume and, on the logistics’ side, deploy innovative technologies including radio frequency identification and the electrification of supply chain movements.

Port Everglades, Florida’s top throughput port for perishable goods, handles approximately 144,000 TEUs of reefer cargo annually and serves as a gateway to Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.

The port’s new ocean carrier services bringing farm-fresh produce to the U.S. include CMA CGM’s Americas XL service, connecting the port with Chile, Peru and Colombia, and Ocean Network Express’s (ONE) FLX service, which connects with Peru and Ecuador. Port Everglades is currently the only U.S. stop for this new, North-South service from ONE, says Jorge Hernandez, Director of Business Development.

A recent addition on the intermodal front is CSX Greenway, whose fleet of refrigerated trailers transports fresh produce, frozen foods and other refrigerated products along the I-95 corridor to the U.S. Northeast.

Additional logistical improvements include Web cameras installed on McIntosh Road to allow truckers and dispatchers to see current traffic conditions from three different perspectives – North, South and from terminals. To further speed the flow of goods, Port Everglades Terminal introduced an appointment system called eModal while Florida International Terminal offers Saturday and Sunday hours. In addition, U.S. Customs and Border Protection expanded its RPM (Radiation Portal Monitor) hours to reduce congestion.

Big Apple

Farther north, reefer cargo currently represents about six percent of the Port of New York and New Jersey’s (PONYNJ) total import volume and 14 percent of all reefer cargo imports in the U.S., says spokesperson Steve Burns. Reefer imports are down about 12 percent year-to-date through September. However, that’s a significantly smaller drop than other dry cargo.

Even though reefer has declined this year, Burns says additional cold storage facilities are being developed across the region to satisfy future demand: “To help streamline supply chain movements, PONYNJ has been expanding relationships and identifying warehouse and distribution center locations in the region. This work is helping PONYNJ better understand targeted commodities and available capacity.”

Intermodally, PONYNJ’s Port Street Corridor Improvement Project is fully redesigning and rebuilding the northern entrance of Port Newark, which connects the complex to several major highways. About 70,000 trucks serving the complex weekly will benefit from a safer, more efficient route.

The Southbound Connector Project is expanding capacity and flexibility of the port’s on-dock express rail system at the Port Newark/Elizabeth and Port Authority Marine Terminal complex. The expansion will add a second railroad egress point headed southbound.

PONYNJ is also exploring new technology to monitor real-time traffic flow and truck movements at the port complex.

“The Port of New York and New Jersey has the optimal location, logistics and relationships to be a premier destination for reefer cargo,” explains Port Director Beth Rooney. “We maintain active, collaborative conversations across all links in the supply chain including cold storage facilities, distribution centers and trucking companies to streamline the transport process and help ensure goods arrive on time and fresh at their destinations.”

Lone Star State

The reefer business at Port Freeport, Texas, got a boost recently when the port signed a new lease agreement with Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. (Del Monte), one of the world’s leading producers, distributors and marketers of fresh and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Del Monte ships will offer weekly calls to Port Freeport with imported bananas, pineapples and plantains. The company also owns Network Shipping, a third-party ocean logistics arm that carries goods between the Americas.

Del Monte will relocate its western U.S. Gulf operation to Port Freeport’s Velasco Container Terminal in 2024.

The port completed an extension of the berth at the Velasco Terminal this past May. The two existing post-Panamax cranes have been modified and can traverse the entire 1,727-foot length of dock. Port Freeport plans to add two more post-Panamax cranes by the first half of 2026. The retrofit will also add 688 plugs for refrigerated containers.

Final engineering of the port’s new Gate 12 access to the terminal is underway with construction expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2024. Road improvements and a new truck queuing area will commence in early 2024 and be completed in late 2024.

“Port Freeport handled about 42,000 TEUs of refrigerated cargo during FY 2023 ended September 30,” notes Jason Miura, Director, Business & Economic Development. “This was roughly a 16 percent increase year-over-year.” 

The addition of Del Monte is expected to double the port’s current overall container volume. Del Monte will deploy newly constructed, fully cellular vessels to Port Freeport with a design capacity of 634 reefer units.

California Dreamin’

Refrigerated cargo is an important factor at the Port of Long Beach, which is also improving intermodal connections and logistics to ensure efficient cargo flow.

In 2022, the port handled 48,513 TEUs of imported and 61,822 TEUs of exported cold and frozen foods, says Lee Peterson, Media Relations Manager. The most popular exports are foods produced in California including beef, pork, citrus fruits, grapes, stone fruit and cheese. The top refrigerated imports include shrimp and fish.

“During our export off-season, imports will also include citrus fruits, meats and vegetables, many of the items we typically export,” adds Peterson. “This happens after seasonal cargo has been fully exported and that same commodity is then imported from a different growing region.”

He says the port has built a fair amount of dedicated reefer container space over the years: “For example, one of our terminals, Long Beach Container Terminal, has 2,250 stacked spaces for reefers. Overall, we have 6,000 spaces throughout the port.”

The port’s major capital improvement projects also include a great deal of rail, which will prove beneficial to reefer shippers.

“Currently, a small percentage of refrigerated containers is moved by on-dock rail,” Peterson explains. “The majority of containers are trucked to warehouses and broken down for immediate distribution. However, as part of our capital improvement program, the port is investing over the next several years to add infrastructure and enhance efficiencies in the rail system to maximize on-dock rail capacity.”

Due to the weight requirements of many temperature-controlled containers, hauling items by rail for export is one of the most optimal pathways to transport these goods. The Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility, which received a $50.6 million grant from the Maritime Administration’s Port Infrastructure Development Program, will improve the efficiency of on-dock rail cargo movement throughout the San Pedro Bay ports complex, which includes the Port of Los Angeles.

“By allowing longer trains to be assembled with greater frequency, the $1.567 billion facility will dramatically streamline rail operations and minimize the increase in truck trips as cargo volume grows,” says Peterson. “The overall project will be built in phases, each improving cargo flow, with completion by 2032.”

Other rail projects include the Pier G-J Double Track Access project, which added a second rail line between Piers G and J to facilitate on-dock rail and eliminate a bottleneck. The $25 million Fourth Track at Ocean Boulevard project added another line to a crucial rail route in the port. Construction began in 2022 and was completed this past summer.

Farther south, the Port of San Diego handles approximately 80,000 refrigerated containers annually through the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal (TAMT).

Dole Fresh Fruit has a weekly service from Latin America to TAMT, servicing the entire western U.S. and Canada. Once the vessel is berthed, it’s connected to shore power, allowing it to operate without running its diesel engine.

“Currently the cargo is offloaded utilizing ships’ cranes that are powered through shore power but will soon be able to utilize our new, all-electric mobile harbor cranes,” notes Joel Valenzuela, Maritime Business Director. “These cranes are the first of their kind in North America.” The electric cranes have quadrupled lift capacity at TAMT from 100 metric tons to 400 metric tons and will assist with heavy-lift operations including containers.

Zero Emissions

The port is in the process of converting its cargo-handling equipment to zero emissions, enabling the refrigerated containers to be hauled to a container yard by an all-electric UTR (utility tractor rig). It’s also working with local and state agencies, as well as port customers, to identify electric truck charging infrastructure opportunities to further support zero emissions operations on the West Coast.  

Halifax-based Tom Peters is the magazine’s ports and logistics columnist.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.