< Back to All Insights and Resources

Shipping Produce: 5 Ways to Avoid Costly Mistakes

Shipping Produce: 5 Ways to Avoid Costly Mistakes

Every year, 14% of food produced is lost between the time it is harvested to when it hits the shelves.

In this case, loss means that the product is unsellable and therefore discarded due to damage, contamination, expiration or other factors. One contributor to this loss is poor shipping practices as food is transported, typically to a distribution center or retail store. Fresh produce is even more at risk of loss during this time due to its fragile and time-sensitive nature.

As a produce shipper, oversights during transportation can lead to unnecessary waste and impact your bottom line. After all, unusable produce can’t be sold. Luckily, there are steps you can take to keep your produce (and profit) loss to a minimum.

What Causes Produce to be Rejected?

When produce is deemed to be in poor condition, the receiver can reject it upon delivery. Depending on your terms with the receiver and the extent of the damage, this could mean lost profit on part or all the shipment.

While there are many reasons produce may be rejected, these are some of the most common:

  • Temperature is out of range: All fresh fruits and vegetables have a temperature range that they must maintain when being moved. If the temperature is found out of range upon delivery, the receiver may reject the load.
  • Poor quality:
    Factors like broken skin, bruising, pest damage, and discoloration are considered defects and impact the grade (quality rating) of the produce. If the defect percentage exceeds U.S. Grade Standards or the receiver is delivered a lower grade product than promised, the shipment may be rejected.
  • Product expiration: Fresh fruits and vegetables have a limited lifespan before they expire, meaning the clock starts ticking as soon as they are harvested. Since there is such a short window, things like poor transportation planning, delivery delays, or unreliable carriers can all lead to products expiring in transit and becoming unsellable.
  • Damage or contamination: Damage caused by shifting during transport, falling out of packaging, and cross-contamination with other foods in the truck can all create a scenario where the produce is unusable.

The best way to avoid a rejected load is to minimize the risk that your goods are exposed to during transportation.

Below are 5 things you can do to increase the chances of your load arriving at its destination fresh and intact.

5 Ways to Minimize Loss When Shipping Produce

1. Plan Cold Chain Transportation in Advance

Since most produce is temperature sensitive, it requires a reefer (a refrigerated trailer that can maintain specific temperature range) to be moved. Only a small number of sturdy root vegetables like potatoes and onions can be shipped by dry van.

This need for specialized equipment means it is best to secure your cold chain carrier long before peak produce season arrives to ensure capacity. Peak produce season is when crops are ready to be harvested and must be shipped to retailers quickly before they expire.

These seasons are cyclical based on crop type and differ based on the region you are in. The Farmer’s Almanac provides an interactive map where you can find the peak season for fruits and vegetables based on region and time of year.

No matter where you fall on the map, peak season brings high demand for reefers and carriers who specialize in cold chain transportation. By establishing a relationship with a trusted carrier ahead of time, you can rest assured you have capacity as soon as your produce is harvested instead of losing precious time tracking down transportation.

2. Follow Food Safety Transportation Requirements

All food being shipped in the U.S. must follow the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act on Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food. Following these requirements is an essential part of a shipper’s responsibilities when transporting produce fit for retail.

There are 4 primary guidelines to keep in mind to remain compliant with FDA standards:

  • Vehicles and Equipment: Make sure the container your goods will be shipped in is clean and up to date on maintenance. This includes inspecting for dirt and pests and making sure the refrigeration equipment is working before loading your cargo.
  • Transportation: Ensure that your fruits and vegetables will be maintained at the correct temperature during transit. Also verify that there will be no cross contamination between fresh produce, ready to eat foods, and non-food items when loading the truck.
  • Training: To transport produce, carriers must go through documented training in food safety practices like this course from the FDA. To ensure your carrier is qualified to move your shipment, ask to see their training documentation.
  • Records: Keep records of written procedures and agreements made around the transportation of your goods.

Another important safety measure when shipping produce is a load seal. A load seal is typically a plastic band looped through the doors of the reefer to show that the container hasn’t been opened and the cargo hasn’t been tampered with.

Due to strict safety measures around food items, most receivers won’t accept a delivery without an intact seal. To avoid this issue, check for a load seal and record its number on the shipment’s BOL before the carrier leaves.

3. Package and Load Produce Correctly

Packaging does much more than provide storage for your produce. It’s also the first line of defense in protecting your fragile goods from damage and contamination during shipping and handling.

Bins and wooden pallets are two of the most common types of packaging for shipping produce. Adding extra security such as plastic wrap or netting can help prevent shifting inside the container which can cause bruising. Corner caps are another way you can add an extra layer of protection to your palletized items.

Correct loading can also make or break the condition your cargo arrives in at the other end of the journey. Here are a few tips for loading fresh produce:

  • Have your goods packaged and pre-cooled to the temperature it will be shipped. Pre-cooling prevents condensation forming on your food when put in the reefer which can create mold.
  • If you are shipping multiple types of produce, be mindful of placement to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Ensure that the correct blocking and bracing is in place to prevent movement or spillage inside the container while on the road.

4. Check Temperature Before, During, & After Shipping

Most produce is temperature sensitive and must stay within specific ranges to maintain optimum quality. So, monitoring the temperature of your product is crucial to it staying fresh and safe for consumption.

Different temperatures are required for each fruit and vegetable, but 32-50 degrees is common in most cases. The Produce Blue Book has an extensive guide that lists the ideal transportation temperature by commodity. Once the proper temperature is determined, it should be recorded on the shipment’s BOL.

Temperature checks should be done multiple times along the move- before pickup, during transport, and upon delivery. Temperature pulping is the most common method of reading the internal temperature of a fruit or vegetable. A classic pulp thermometer is inserted into the produce to get a reading while a digital pulp thermometer can take readings from the outside the fruit or vegetable. As a best practice, you should pulp samples from multiple pallets in the truck to make sure the readings are consistent.

By monitoring your cargo’s temperature throughout, it is more likely that any fluctuations will be caught quickly, increasing the chances that a quality product is delivered.

Ensure Correct Reefer Mode

Reefers are used to maintain the temperature required by the produce being moved. It is most common for them to cool the interior when the ambient temperature is warmer than required. But they can also produce heat in cold environments.

There are two modes for maintaining the internal temperature of the reefer: continuous and cycle/ start-stop.

Continuous Cycle: The reefer runs the cooling system constantly, maintaining an exact temperature the entire time.

Cycle/ Start Stop: Like a thermostat, the reefer will run the cooling system until it gets to the programmed temperature then shut off. Once the temperature reaches a certain threshold outside the specified temperature, it will reactivate to cool the reefer back down.

Fresh produce is very sensitive to temperature shifts and should always be transported with the cooling system set to the continuous cycle. While experienced cold chain carriers should do this by default, confirm with your driver to make sure.

5. Maintain Frequent Communication with Your Carrier

For the sake of the relationship, peace of mind, and your bottom line, it is important to establish an open line of communication with your carrier from the beginning. After all, the fate of your product is in their hands after they leave your facility.

When choosing a carrier, ask how frequently they provide updates and what information they include. Delivery ETA, temperature, and reefer mode are some examples of data to request. With you and the driver keeping an eye on your cargo status, there is a much lower chance of damage occurring that would put your shipment in jeopardy.

A Little Mindfulness Goes a Long Way When Shipping Produce

While shipping produce may take more care than your average product, having a successful delivery doesn’t need to be left up to chance. To maintain the value of your produce and avoid costly transportation mistakes, keep in mind the 5 tips covered above:

  • Create a cold chain transportation plan before peak season
  • Follow federal and industry food transportation requirements
  • Package your products carefully, and load to prevent damage and cross-contamination
  • Maintain the correct commodity temperature – before, during and after shipping
  • Have open communication with your carrier

Of course, a good carrier can make all the difference. If you need help navigating produce shipping and are looking for a carrier you can trust, contact our team of cold chain experts to discuss options personalized for your business. 

Related Articles