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Commodities Shipped In Reefer Containers - How to Maintain Optimum Condition & Avoid Claims?

Commodities shipped in refrigerated containers are generally divided into two distinct categories: chilled and frozen. Both are highly perishable and require greater care while maintaining temperature, handling equipment, and attention to the accuracy of information about the cargo. If the optimum condition is not maintained as per the shipper guideline, cargo may be damaged in transit, and a huge claim may arise subsequently. Outlined below some key elements in managing risk and minimizing claims while handling refrigerated goods.

Many chilled cargoes (e.g., fruit) are regarded as a "Live" cargo since they continue to respire post-harvest and, as such, are susceptible to desiccation (wilting and drying). It is not the case with commodities such as chilled meat or cheese. The minimum fruit carriage temperature is usually no lower than -1.1 degree C (30degreeF). Frozen cargo is regarded as "inert" and is usually carried at or below -18 degree C (0 degrees F).

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In chilled commodity transportation, the ventilators are typically left in an open position, with a limited number of exceptions (e.g., meat, chocolate, film, chemicals, dairy products, and controlled atmosphere shipments). Some cargoes may require controlled humidity (e.g., flower bulbs). In such cases, many refrigeration units are only capable of reducing humidity within the cargo space, and the settings should be applied accordingly.

Reefer container side view
Image credite: CMA CGM

How to avoid claim against reefer cargo?

Temperature controlled cargoes are inherently perishable and present greater challenges and risk exposures for the logistics operator than ambient cargoes. The growth of mega container ships and their capability to handle a huge number of reefer containers is why the existing fleet of dedicated "reefer ship" continues to decline. Reefer industry estimates refrigerated containers would be utilized for up to 75% of all temperature-controlled cargo shipments by the year 2020. So the process of correctly packing, handling, and monitoring refrigerated containers and their cargoes will continue to draw attention. While perishable cargo is often high paying freight, it can also give rise to high-value exposures; a container of frozen shrimp, for instance, could hold value over 275,000, necessitating additional care that needs to be taken.

While handling a shipment of refrigerated goods, operators need to understand how things can go wrong. Insurance-related claims that involve perishable products often found due to:

There are innumerable opportunities throughout a supply chain for such errors, which can be catastrophic in terms of the sound condition of the cargo. Often the simplest of errors result in high value claims from cargo owners. Foodstuffs especially are subject to stringent restrictions to ensure safety through the food chain. These will often dictate that even the smallest abuse in temperature can result in the refusal of cargo condemned as unfit for consumption.

Reefer cargo shipment
Image credit www.crowley.com

From a logistics operator perspective, they need to learn about their shipper requirement when handling temperature-controlled cargoes. In the first instance, it is generally the shipper's responsibility to provide specific instructions and conditions regarding the shipment's carriage. However, it is increasingly the case that this responsibility is passed to the logistics service provider, not least when full supply chain managed operations are undertaken.

In these cases, the forwarder assumes responsibility for the entire supply chain. Whatever the circumstance, the logistics provider should actively seek advice, clarification, and agreement from the shipper regarding such requirements, and contracts specifying these should be regularly checked, especially at renewal. It should also be noted that industry regulations - and therefore carriage requirements - can change for perishable cargoes fairly frequently.

For most cargoes, the shipper will normally declare a set temperature where the cargo is to be maintained throughout the transit. For less sensitive chilled cargoes, a range of acceptable temperatures may be stipulated. In either case, when sub-contracting transport moves, whether short inter-depot transfers or global containerized movements, it is essential to ensure that clear and accurate written instructions are passed down the contractual chain. The margins for error are often minimal; the difference between ""and "+" temperature can be easily confused in communications and will likely have catastrophic effects on the cargo. Freezing an ambient cargo can be just as damaging as overheating a frozen cargo.

While the Centigrade scale is most widely used and recognized globally, the USA, for example, uses Fahrenheit. Adding to the confusion, 0C is a widely recognized temperature setting for chilled cargo, while 0F is a widely recognized temperature setting for frozen cargo. Again accurate communication is key to avoiding potential losses.

Once the shipping instructions have been made clear, the container needs to be running properly. Reefer equipment should be regularly inspected for conformity, especially before loading, and such units should be serviced and maintained regularly. Visual checks for damage should also be carried out before stuffing. Damage to the internal vents, perhaps caused by previous poor stowage, can severely affect the efficiency of airflow through the transport unit, resulting in the actual temperature never reaching the set point temperature.

It is also essential to check regularly that the data logger equipment is fully functional. As technology has developed in recent years, it is now possible to remotely monitor this data and even warns to be raised when temperatures fluctuate unexpectedly. However, such technology is of little value if the data logger itself is not operational.

Pre-packing checks and correct packing also play an important role. The transport unit should be in good condition, clean and free from odor. The cargo must be evenly distributed with due care taken to ensure a free flow of air and pallets stacked safely and securely. Crucially, cargo should be cooled to the desired carrying temperature before loading. The reefer unit is not intended to cool cargo down, merely to maintain the setpoint temperature. At TT Club we have found that cargo packed at elevated temperatures is one of the leading causes of cargo claims.

If things do go wrong, dealing with temperature-sensitive cargoes, time is of the essence. Timely intervention after an issue has been discovered can have a dramatic effect in mitigating a potential loss. Further, following the discovery of an issue, appointing an expert to attend and assess a cargo which is alleged to have suffered temperature abuse can often result in at least a portion of the cargo being either accepted or saved employing a salvage sale.

Key Points to take away
  1. Know your shipper
  2. Understand the correct requirements for the specific cargo being transported and verify them
  3. Ensure accurate information is passed through the contractual chain.

Dealing with container machinery failure

In the event of a container machinery failure beyond the ship's staff's capability to rectify, it may be possible to save some of the cargo by adopting emergency procedures.

If the cargo is hard or deep- frozen in a well-insulated container with good door seals, it should survive for several days, depending on the ambient temperature. Shielding from direct sunlight will help. Even then, the probability is that only the outer portions of the cargo will suffer. Still, undoubtedly the best way of dealing with such a situation is to introduce coldness to the cargo. It can be done by dumping liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide into the container and vaporizing within the space when any leaked heat will be consumed. It should be ensured that the gas used will not harm the cargo (not normally a problem with hard frozen products) and that the cargo will not be adversely affected by the shallow temperatures produced, particularly locally when the gas enters the unit. It is not possible to regulate the temperature when resorting to refrigeration, and it is quite unsuitable for chilled cargoes.

Solid carbon dioxide (dry ice) may be a suitable alternative. Normally supplied wrapped for protection during handling, it is necessary to open the wrapping to permit evaporation. The more exposed the blocks from their wrappings, the more rapid the evaporation, the greater the cooling effectand, the shorter the life of the blocks. However, there is little point in economizing on carbon dioxide to the possible detriment of the cargo. Care should be taken when handling blocks of dry ice; the extreme temperature may cause severe burns on contact with bare skin.

Neither of these gases, nitrogen or carbon dioxide, will support life, so they may damage living fruit cargo when opening a container that has received this treatment. Therefore, personnel should ensure that adequate time has been allowed for ventilation before entering. These gases are heavier than air; therefore should flow out like a liquid. However, there is always the possibility of pockets caught in a tight stow.

None of these methods (dumping of carbon dioxide or nitrogen, or the use of dry ice) are suitable for chilled living cargoes as the rapid introduction of nitrogen or carbon dioxide will kill the product either by the very low the local temperature and/or the effect of the gas itself on respiration (although it is possible for these gases to be introduced in small quantities using sophisticated control equipment).

Where chilled live cargoes are involved, shading from the sun, even hosing down the container, will help, but inevitably the temperature will rise, and the ripening process accelerates. Ventilation is essential to remove harmful vapors produced by the cargo and replace the oxygen necessary for the fruit's health. However, this may give rise to an increased rise in temperature. Only speedy transfer of the cargo to a more acceptable environment will continue to prolong its storage life.

Reefer Container Shipment

Procedures and guidelines for stowage of reefer containers shall be adhered to. A reefer container list or manifest must accompany every reefer container proposed for shipment. Additionally read our article on:
  1. Reefer cargo Handling In Port
    Reefer containers shall be plugged in and supplied with ships power as soon as practicable after loading. In case it is to be done by shore hands, ships crew shall still closely monitor the operation and confirm that all reefer containers are supplied with power earliest after loading....

  2. Reefer cargo care at sea
    At sea, all reefer containers shall be monitored by checking physically at least twice daily (weather permitting). All monitored data for each reefer container on board shall be entered in a reefer monitoring log and retained for three years. Some reefer containers with special cargo (e.g., VIP cargo) come with instructions for more frequent monitoring and reporting. Such instructions shall be strictly followed. ....

  3. Commodities Shipped In Reefer Containers
    Some cargoes may require controlled humidity (e.g. flower bulbs). In such cases, many refrigeration units are only capable of reducing humidity within the cargo space, and the settings should be applied accordingly. ....

  4. Reefer Cargo Temperature Recording
    A Partlow recorder registers temperature on a pressure-sensitive circular chart over 31 day period. If the voyage transit is expected to exceed 31 days, care must be taken to ensure charts are replaced before expiry. The first chart should be placed underneath the new chart to build up a complete temperature record for the entire voyage up until arrival at the final destination. .....

  5. Reefer Cargo Maintaining Records
    Monitoring the digital & chart temperatures of all reefer containers at least twice a day. Daily reefer container temperature checklists should be maintained, and printouts from monitoring unit should be preserved.....

  6. Reefer Cargo Care During Sea Transit
    Reefer containers usually have their own refrigeration unit, with an air or water-cooled heat exchanger. They have a data logger to record the temperature. The logger may be in the form of a Partlow chart or a digital logger. They usually contain high-value cargo, and any damage to cargo would likely result in substantial claims......

  7. Reefer Cargo Defrosting
    During the operation of a refrigeration unit, a layer of ice will form on the evaporator coils depending on the temperature set, the temperature of the cargo, the amount of fresh air ventilation and the cargo humidity. The unit periodically enters a phase where heat is produced by a series of electrical bars, allowing defrosting to occur. At such times, all fans are turned off automatically to prevent heat from entering the cargo compartment. ....

  8. Basic check item prior stowing Reefer Cargo
    Stowage location of reefers must be checked against vessels reefer receptacle locations. In case reefer containers must be loaded in random locations, it must be confirmed that monitoring and repair will be possible during the voyage, and that vessel has sufficient extension cables for providing power. ....

Container handling additional guideline:

Containership cargo stowage and planning

Stacking Weights Restrictions

Lashing strength calculation

Dangerous goods stowage and segregation

Reefer Container Stowage

Out of Gauge Container Stowage

Special Container Stowage

20 or 40 or 45 feet Compulsory Stowage Locations

Irregular Stowage of Containers

Over-stow of Containers

Hatch Cover Clearance (High cube containers Under Deck )

Other matters regarding cargo stowage as necessary

How to load maximum number 20 feet container on deck ?

What are the extra precaution should be taken prior loading a 45 feet container on deck ?

Container damage in ''2 in 1'' cargo Operation

Modern containership & loading of various container types

How to load containers coming in different forms/sizes

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