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Ocean Transportation: What It Takes To Ship Our Food

Ocean transportation underpins the majority of global trade, with around 80 percent of our goods carried by sea. So what does it take to transport our food from one country to another? Stephen Tang, the Sales Director of YangMing Marine Transport Corporation’s Los Angeles office, shares his 30 years of insight in the ocean cargo shipping industry.

How much food does YangMing transport globally via cargo shipping each year?

Food cargo is around 10 percent of our total transportation. The commodities we transport are protein, fruit and vegetables, dairy and other frozen foodstuff. 

What are the big challenges when transporting food from one destination to another? 

The top challenge would be transit time - the shorter time it takes to reach the destination, the better it is for the food quality. The best option would be for importers to source their product from a nearby country. For example, in Taiwan, if you can source a product from Japan, it would definitely be more fresh on arrival compared to the same product coming from the United States. 

Another challenge, particularly for low-income regions, is weak or absent infrastructure. Some countries don't have a strong cold chain infrastructure to support the export of foodstuff, so there is no guarantee that good quality products are loaded into the container every time.   

Regarding shelf-life, how do you ensure that the food arrives in selling condition and quality? 

Transport time can take between two and three weeks, sometimes more depending on shipping routes. But each food usually has its own shelf life, so the exporter needs to know the maximum transit time that a product can afford. If the product has a shorter shelf life, for example if you’re shipping cherries, it might be better to choose transport by air instead of by ocean.

With ocean transportation, particularly for fresh or perishable foods like fruits and vegetables, the air flow and temperature setting are important to keep them fresh. To regulate the container temperature, we have crewmembers who check the containers 3-4 times a day during the voyage and take necessary action to repair any temperature malfunctions. We also have a lot of technologies that change the atmosphere, which keeps produce ‘asleep’ during transportation and extends their shelf life. 

Is there a way to check the contents inside the container? How can the crew be sure the loaded content is as it was declared? 

To be very honest with you, we can’t fully be sure. We handle hundreds of containers a day, so we don’t have the manpower to verify the contents of every single container. We usually just follow the declaration form submitted by the shipper to tell us what they loaded into the container – we work off mutual trust.

That being said, ocean transportation usually relies on the coast guard and customs, beside ocean carriers, to reinforce declarations. However, reinforcement also depends on terminal productivity and infrastructure. Most terminal ports have x-ray facilities, weighing scales and port police with K-9 (dog) units, but they also don't have the manpower to trace the contents of every single container that arrives. Terminal ports today are already very congested with ships and containers, so enforcement is still a big issue for terminal operators, customs and coast guards – not just ocean carriers. 

How does consumer demand impact imports and exports?

This is a big question with no straightforward answer, but I can give you an example. Households use onions all year round to cook all kinds of foods, but domestically grown onions are only available during a certain season. Taiwan, for instance, only has a domestic supply of onions from December to May. Once the domestic season ends, importers will fill the gap to import from other countries.   

The fresh produce market doesn’t have strong financial support, so importers will always look for price alternatives to keep their product competitive in the market, because in the end, consumers are mostly looking to buy cheaper quality goods. Let’s say Taiwanese importers place an order with major onion growers from the US west coast, but then it turns out that these onions are more expensive than those grown in Japan or Korea. Then Taiwanese importers can change their import in a snap of a finger to Japan or Korea exporter to save costs. 

Would you say that ocean transportation has a strong stake in the world economy? 

When everything is running smoothly, no one thinks about ocean transportation as a key part of the world economy. We don't realize the importance of ocean transportation until we see serious disruptions, like the Suez Canal incident earlier this year. Billions of cargo and manufacturing components are shipped every day worldwide, so any disruption in ocean transportation definitely would have a serious impact on the world's economy and on food distribution. That's why reliable transportation is so important.

What vulnerabilities does the cargo shipping industry face? Did COVID-19 have an impact on ocean transportation?

We are vulnerable to weather changes, and today we have a lot of issues with labour and terminal port congestion. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the challenges seem to never end. For example, in the past during port landings, the crew members could get off the vessel for a break or for some shopping. But now since COVID-19, some ports do not allow the ship crew to get off the vessel or the base. The rules for the crew have been really tough, and sometimes the crew might even need to live on the ship for 7 or 8 months without getting off the vessel.  

Port productivity has also been at a very low capacity where automation is not utilized, which has caused a lot of congestion at ports, with shipping vessels anchored in open water for maybe 30-35 days. This is also particularly bad news for importers who ordered commodities with a shorter shelf life.

What have been some of the biggest evolutions in cargo shipping in the last few years? 

Shipping really has had a lot of evolution in the past decades. The number of maritime carriers is downsizing, but on the other hand, some carriers are getting bigger and bigger. We’ve had to evolve with e-commerce, and we’ve made changes to cargo and terminal safety. There's also been a lot of investment in the reduction of carbon emissions. Most shipping vessels have now changed their fuel type, but have also updated their engines so that they comply with the environmental regulations set by the International Maritime Organisation. It's a big investment - I think over billions of dollars - but people cannot always pursue profit at the expense of the Earth. 

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