The ability to transport fresh produce in a safe and efficient manner has never been better, or more challenged, than it is today. Compared to just a few years ago, the products, packaging, transportation equipment, and pre- and post-transportation handling of products have all improved. As a result, consumers in the United States enjoy fresh produce from all over the world on a year-round basis. Food providers must remain vigilant, however, and push the envelope to make fresh foods available in easily accessed forms and packaging.
“Fresh produce” is an umbrella term for a tremendous diversity of products. Some may be whole or intact raw agricultural commodities, while some may be fresh-cut products. In addition, fresh-cut items, like salad blends and kits, may contain ingredients other than fresh produce, including allergenic ingredients. The supply chain is more than a link between the consumer and farm; moving fresh produce between the point of origin and point of use requires multiple transportation steps. The supply chain encompasses all processing steps, including transportation, cleaning, disinfection, food defense, etc.
Challenges in Transportation of Fresh Produce
Transporting raw produce presents numerous challenges for every point in the supply chain, including each time products are transported. Some of these challenges include cross-contamination (e.g., with microorganisms, allergens, mycotoxins, or foreign materials), maintenance of appropriate temperature and humidity controls, proper segregation of mixed loads, overall sanitation, worker health and hygiene, and container security.
Many fresh produce items are transported in boxes that have holes to allow for ventilation. As a result, the produce is exposed to possible cross-contamination during transport, and those in the transportation industry must be mindful of limiting opportunities for cross-contamination. The term “clean” used in transportation means free of odors, debris, and pest activity or a trailer in good condition with no holes or damage and with an air chute in good condition. Although there are no known cases of bacterial contamination of fresh produce due to issues during transport, the industry remains vigilant to ensure that this does not occur.
Ideally, allergenic products are shipped on different trucks than fresh produce. In these cases, it is important to implement the proper protocols to ensure there is no accidental misloading. Although rare, in some instances fresh produce may need to be transported along with allergenic products. When this is necessary, proper segregation and labeling, physical barriers, and employee training all play a role in addressing the potential for cross-contact between allergens and fresh produce.
Temperature control during the transportation of fresh produce is critical to maintain product quality. However, the appropriate temperature and humidity range are highly product dependent. The ideal temperature is based on customer specifications and industry guidelines. When shipping a variety of fresh produce items that have different temperature and humidity specifications, it is best to ship the products in different trucks to maintain the product specifications. However, if it is necessary to ship multiple products that require varying temperature and humidity levels, proper placement in the truck and barriers can be utilized. It is important to note that the goal of temperature control generally is not maintenance of product safety.
As noted previously, vehicle sanitation and appropriate handling practices limit the likelihood that fresh produce will become contaminated as a result of transportation. If the product has been contaminated prior to shipping, however, in some cases the rate of pathogen growth (as well as spoilage organisms) can increase. Because there is no “safe” limit for pathogens in fresh produce, we must ensure that fresh produce is free from contamination before loading.
Challenges in Fresh Produce Innovation
Innovation within the fresh produce sector has kept the transportation industry on its toes. For example, bagged cut lettuce and salad kits were introduced in the market and took the retail scene by storm. Today, virtually every produce department includes bagged leaf items. In response, the industry has had to learn, often the hard way, which types of product can be shipped cut and in bags. The design and structure of the bag, atmosphere inside the bag, field dating, reefer (refrigerated truck) unit settings, proper loading, proper precooling, and accelerated sales processes, among others, had to evolve in a way that allow for the tighter tolerances necessary for salad kits to make delivery successfully. Although suppliers and transporters work as a team to move thousands of loads of these products every month, the process is not without losses—everyone involved can tell a story about a load of produce ruined due to a lack of knowledge or a breakdown in the supply chain. I remember loads of spinach that were destroyed because the original bags were not breathable and allowed the spinach (which continues to respire after harvest) to heat up in the bag, even when precooled and held at an appropriate temperature. Education is expensive in the fresh produce world!
New Regulations and Advancements in Transportation of Fresh Produce
The Food Safety Modernization Act directed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to craft a rule specific to the transportation of food. As written, the rule aligns with industry best practices and requires the growers, receivers, and transportation companies to communicate best practices and make sure proper procedures are followed throughout. Fortunately, the FDA allowed the players to work out what the best practices are for different commodities. For example, best practices are very different for handling watermelon compared with fresh cherries.
Transportation has a very good track record, and it continues to improve. The speed of information dispersal is accelerating, and systems are available to help track and identify issues before they affect the product. Live temperature monitoring and tracking; better cooling equipment, transportation management systems, and dock scheduling; and improved cargo vessels and driver training are some of the new or improved developments that are helping the supply chain keep up with new regulations and demands. When you compare a produce department now with one from 30 years ago, you can really see the amazing improvements that have been made for the benefit of all consumers.