A Race Against the Clock: Shipping Produce Internationally

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bundles of produce

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that one-third of food produced for human consumption worldwide is lost annually in the process of getting food from the farms to consumption1. Produce has one of the briefest product life cycles that exist. Although fruits and vegetables all have different shelf lives after harvest, there always needs to be a heightened sense of urgency when it comes to distributing these products around the globe. With some produce only having a retail window of a few days, the supply chain has to be precise, minimizing delays and maximizing shelf life.

One of the main goals of many grocery-retailers in North America has been to provide fresh produce all year round to meet demand. Traditionally retailers have relied on Wholesalers to procure their produce. More recently some large retailers have begun to enter into direct relationships with growers and consortiums and then using freight forwarders, which specialize in and thoroughly understand produce’s unique shipping requirements, to deliver the produce from the country of origin to the retailer’s distribution centers (DCs). In order to be consistently successful, those forwarders have to ensure that every person in the shipping process understands their role and are ready to react, as delays or damages are costly and can result in rejections.

Produce transportation is similar to that of a baton race on an obstacle course. Some common obstacles include delays at ports, language barriers and transportation capacity issues. Forwarders with experience with these issues, ports of origin and how common problems uniquely affect produce will more often have the strategies and relationships to avoid and recover from problems and avoid rejections.

It’s important to partner with a forwarder that has relationships along the entire route. For instance, bananas, the second most purchased fruit in North America, are being shipped to the Port of Philadelphia from Peru via the Panama Canal. In this example, your forwarders should have deep relationships with those loading the ships in the ports in Peru, through the Panama Canal, and then once they reach the ports in New York. It’s important to understand all the touch points throughout the process. There are many smaller operations throughout the banana’s supply chain including a drayage operation in Peru and within the destination country.

Banana Supply Chain Infographic
Banana Supply Chain Infographic

When shipping produce, you must decide what shipping method will best balance cost and transit time. It’s critical to keep track of not only where the shipment is but also what temperature it’s being kept at, so that in the case of rejections, the source of the problem can be easily identified. It’s also important that your forwarders thoroughly understand rules and regulations for the USDA, FDA, US & Canadian Customs, and CFIA, so that they have the correct information to make the processes flow smoothly. They also need relationships with senior people within those organizations to help resolve issues when they arise. Finally, a state of the art P.O. management system that facilitates real time communication to the customer is critical to successful produce shipping.

Having the right logistics management team in place can save time and money when shipping produce around the globe. The expertise of shipping cross-borders allows for better distribution of fresh produce. Technology advances and carrier relationships have evolved the way retailers obtain and ship their produce to provide the optimal shelf life for these goods.


  1. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141013-food-waste-national-security-environment-science-ngfood/