How are Perishable Food Items Shipped?

Apr 14, 2023 · 8 mins read ·

Shipping & Vessels
fresh fruit in a market

Did you know that about 40% of food is lost or wasted before consumption?

This alarming figure is according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It makes one wonder, what happens in between? When does the spoilage occur?

It may happen while the said food item is in transit.

Transporting perishable food via sea is one of the more complex processes when it comes to shipping. Food-related shipments are regarded as being the most delicate.

They need particular temperature ranges and unique shipping considerations to stay fresh while being transported. And because of these special considerations, perishable goods are difficult and expensive to export.

Food products could rot before they reach your clients if they are not carefully shipped. In the worst instance, contaminated food could endanger the health of their customers. 

Learning more about the appropriate shipping choices for perishable food items will help you easily prevent this. And that is what we will discuss in this blog post.

What are perishable food items?

Perishable foods are any items that, if environmental conditions (such as humidity or excessive temperatures) are not maintained at certain levels, can spoil or become unhealthy to consume. 

Prepared foods such as fruits, plants, vegetables, dairy, meat, eggs, seafood, and live fish are considered perishables. Even flowers and prescription medications are covered.

Under normal shipping circumstances, storing such things for longer than seven days may produce an unpleasant odor or other annoyance and a potential health risk.

Pathogenic bacteria, which cause foodborne illnesses, and spoilage bacteria, which cause food to decay and acquire disagreeable flavors, aromas, and textures, are two entirely separate families of bacteria that can be found in food.

What are the challenges of shipping food items?

Selling beef jerky or cheesecake online is a different experience than selling books or clothes online. 

While shipping perishables, mistakes might happen, resulting in products that arrive melted or spoilt. 

How much more if your shipping perishables from one continent to another—preparation must happen to minimize or avoid the following challenges: 

Extreme temperatures

A perishable shipment's outcome is determined by the mode of transportation and the required temperature for the perishables to remain usable.

Any exposure outside of specific environmental parameters in such a setting may harm the food and result in spoiling. For example, the temperature, whether it's too hot or cold, can significantly impact items that are packed or frozen.

Attempting to avoid inappropriate handling, power outages, and shattered cold chains is challenging for shippers.

Regulations and specifications

The rules governing the transportation, preparation, and storage of perishable food items have become more stringent in recent years.

Retailers, manufacturers, and logistics service providers transporting perishable goods today are frequently bound by stringent rules, making the shipping process more complicated overall.

Your shipments can be refused or destroyed if you don't stay current on these standards, which are amended frequently.

High freight prices and shipment delays

Perishable items must be shipped with inevitable disruptions in mind due to the rising frequency of delays in international trade.

Inconveniences that can slow the supply chain include severe weather, port delays, sluggish customs procedures, or even simple miscommunication. 

When you're transporting perishable groceries, these might spell tragedy.

Risks of cross-contamination

Food products that have not been properly prepared for delivery can be lethal and pose significant health risks to the people providing transportation and purchasing the goods.

Food businesses are under increased pressure to use handling and packaging techniques that reduce the risk of disease and contamination. 

If you don't, there's a sad possibility that you'll have to throw away all the goods.

How perishables are shipped: Reefers

Shipping perishables can be tricky. It is challenging to organize the transfer of such cargo between the supplier's warehouse, the carrier, the customs and health authorities, and the buyer. 

Any errors in judgment could cause the stakeholders to suffer significant losses.

Perishable goods can be transported quickly and easily by air, the fastest means of transportation. It does have some restrictions, though. 

Moving a significant amount of goods by air could not be economically feasible because, for instance, air cargo transit is expensive compared to road, rail, or sea travel.

The field of transporting perishable cargo, especially perishable food items, has been entirely transformed by the development of modern intermodal containers and temperature-control devices. 

Reefers, or refrigerated containers, are common names for such temperature-controlled containers.

When cargo volumes and costs need to be considered, shipping perishable cargo by sea in temperature-controlled intermodal cargo containers is the method of choice. 

Reefers are insulated shipping containers with temperature monitoring, data logging, and portable temperature-control equipment.

To preserve the quality of the cargo, the temperature within these containers can be adjusted to the necessary level. 

It could be set at ambient or low temperatures, like shipping frozen meat. This would depend on the sort of cargo being transported and following instructions provided by the item's producer or manufacturer.

How do reefers work?

A reefer requires an electrical source; it does not operate independently. This source could be at a genset, depot, terminal, or ship.

They are made to keep the container's temperature, humidity, and environment constant throughout transport.

When transporting reefer goods, four conditions must be considered: temperature, ventilation, humidity, and drainage.


All standard reefer containers are designed to sustain a temperature between +25° C and -25° C for chilled and frozen goods. 

A portion of the world's reefer fleet can also preserve temperatures as low as -35° C. Temperatures as low as -70° C can be maintained in special containers (super freezers).


Air must constantly circulate through the cargo to remove heat and gasses to maintain a cold temperature. As a result, ventilation should be included in the transport boxes. 

Fruits and vegetables demand fresh air ventilation. Air must move about the cargo for it to be frozen. 

Large gaps between the container, the walls, and the cargo are not permitted. Instead, blocks should be used to store the cargo.


A decreased atmospheric humidity is advantageous for some items. The dehumidification feature of a reefer unit can reduce the amount of moisture in the air. 

Although some more recent devices can reach 50%, the ideal range for relative humidity (RH) is between 60% and 85%.


They are employed to drain any extra water that may build up inside the containers, also, how they are made stops water or insects from entering the container.

To summarize

There are a lot of things to consider when transporting perishables by sea. 

But with advanced technology, such as the creation of refrigerated containers or reefers, we get to enjoy unspoiled and fresh food items exported by countries far away.

Want in on the latest maritime news and insights? Or are you looking for an opportunity to live large while working at sea? Martide's here for you!

Visit our website or download our free mobile app to kickstart your seafaring career today.

Tricia Tan

Tricia Tan

Former content writer at Martide.

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