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Life as we know it would not be possible without cold chains. 

By transporting food, pharmaceuticals, and other products from where they are grown or extracted, through the manufacturing process, out to shops and food outlets and, ultimately, onto the end consumer, the cold chain facilitates our existence. 

Unlike goods that can be transported at an ambient temperature range, managing the cold chain is an altogether more specific undertaking that relies on highly specialist skills, technology, facilities, and vehicles. At each stage of a product’s journey, which can involve multiple stakeholders taking responsibility for individual legs, it must be kept at a precise temperate or risk becoming unsafe for consumption. 

Indeed, spoiled food in particular is a major contributor to our global waste problem, which is widely viewed as a climate change catastrophe. 

Staggeringly, the world’s population is estimated to waste one third of all the food it produces. Not only does this put into shameful context the problem of malnourishment seen in the poorest parts of the world, but it also has a massive environmental implication because of unnecessary and inefficient land use.  

However, it is important to consider that in the developing world, food wastage is more a consequence of a lack of robust cold chains as opposed to human wastefulness and consumer habits. In Southern and Southeast Asia, around half of all food waste occurs at storage and distribution stages after harvest and production. In Europe, the figure is closer to 20 percent.

Efficient cold chains–which themselves carry a not insignificant environmental footprint due to energy, diesel and refrigerant gas requirements–are therefore essential to cutting food waste, reducing global hunger and keeping economies and societies supplied with essential goods. 

Indeed, cold chains have been in the spotlight more than usual in recent months thanks to the COVID-19 vaccination rollout occurring across the world. 

Vaccines require an extremely well-monitored transportation and storage environment from the moment they come off the production line to the time they are administered into a patient. If temperatures are too high or too low, the vaccine is in danger of losing its potency which, once lost, cannot be restored. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) sets strict performance standards for storage and transport equipment such as fridges, freezers, cold rooms and cold boxes, while stock management procedures are also subject to WHO guidelines that vary from vaccine to vaccine. 

In the U.S., mature cold chains are playing a fundamental role in delivering COVID-19 vaccinations to populations all over the country, helping them to reach vaccination centers in various environments, from urban epicenters to remote rural communities. 

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several coronavirus vaccines produced by different pharmaceutical companies, among them shots made by Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen. Each requires a different storage temperate, adding an extra layer of complexity to the cold-chain operations responsible for distributing them across the States. 

It is no minor undertaking, reflected by the fact that the worldwide cold chain market was valued at $233.8 billion in 2020, a figure which is predicted to reach more than $340 billion by 2025, driven by a compound annual growth rate of 7.8 percent. Other estimates suggest the global cold chain industry could be worth as much as $447 billion by this time.

The role of reefer ports

North America’s cold chain market reached a value of $88.5 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to over $142 billion by 2025.

Underpinning this activity is a network of reefer ports operating up and down the East and West coasts, as well as inland. These are critical transit hubs of varying sizes which house specialist facilities for the storage and onward transportation of cold goods.

In South Carolina, the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project is on its way to making the Port of Charleston home of the deepest harbor in the world. 

Set to add an additional seven feet, the new 52-foot depth will enable operator South Carolina Ports Authority (SC Ports) to welcome enormous post-Panamax vessels to its facilities, a move which will only serve to attract more supply chain players, including those with cold chain operations. 

With more life science and consumer goods activity on the horizon, SC Ports has expanded its refrigerated capacity to handle an influx of cold and frozen cargo for a variety of customers. Since 2010, the port operator’s refrigerated cargo business has increased by more than 80 percent for all loaded containers.

Meanwhile, global refrigerated warehousing giant Lineage Logistics, operator of more than 300 sites around the world, has expanded its 180,000-square-foot facility at Palmetto Commerce Park in northern Charleston. A $34 million investment, it underlines the firm’s commitment to building the region’s status as a critical cold chain hub. 

Unveiling the project in September 2020, Greg Lehmkuhl, Lineage Logistics president and CEO, commented: “Charleston has it all–first-rate infrastructure, great access, a top ranked port and a skilled workforce.

“South Carolina’s numerous business advantages, in addition to the booming market, have helped Lineage to better service our export and import customers, as well as our domestic shipping partners. We are thrilled to expand our existing operations in what we believe is the right location at the right time.”

While Charleston represents one of the largest-scale reefer zones in the country, other areas too are making important strides which are adding to their cold chain appeal. Here, we round up developments at two more ports, starting in the Gulf of Mexico at Port Manatee

Bearing fruit in Florida 

Located at the entrance to Tampa Bay, Port Manatee is the closest U.S. deep water seaport to the expanded Panama Canal, with 10 40-foot-draft berths serving container, bulk, breakbulk, heavy lift, project and general cargo customers. 

It generates more than $3.9 billion in annual economic impact while helping to sustain more than 27,000 direct and indirect jobs. 

In the fiscal year ended September 2020, an all-time high of 88,466 TEUs of containerized cargo crossed Port Manatee’s docks, a marked rise of more than 50 percent on the preceding 12-month period and a whopping 230 percent more than 2018 fiscal year volume. Meanwhile, a $8.3 million project which will nearly double the size of its 10-acre dockside container yard is moving toward mid-2021 completion. 

Another key recent development means that Port Manatee is now receiving imports of Central American fruit via the newest energy-efficient refrigerated container ships of long-time port tenant Fresh Del Monte Produce. 

The vessels, of which there are six, have a full cargo capacity of 1,276 TEUs and are fitted with 634 plugs for 40-foot-long high-cube refrigerated containers, or reefers. 

Announcing the development, Carlos Buqueras, executive director of Port Manatee, said: “The new Del Monte vessels represent the latest development in the advancement of Port Manatee as Central and Southwest Florida’s preferred gateway for global commerce. 

“Fruits arriving on these ships further add to the record volumes of containerized cargo crossing Port Manatee docks and underscore the importance of key infrastructure enhancements.”

Del Monte has been a loyal customer since 1989, and will take advantage of the new-generation cold chain ships to bring large volumes of fruit to U.S. shores, including bananas, pineapples and avocados.  

From bananas to blueberries 

Switching over to the western side of America, at the Port of Hueneme, a major new development looks set to provide lucrative savings to companies relying on the Southern California facility’s cold-chain services. 

The port moves $10.85 billion in goods each year and consistently ranks among the top 10 U.S. ports for automobiles and fresh produce, with its operations supporting the surrounding community by catalyzing $1.7 billion of economic activity every year. 

Known as “The Banana Port of the West Coast,” the Port of Hueneme could soon also stand as the most attractive destination for companies exporting and importing blueberries to and from the States. It has housed specialist reefer facilities for many years, but recent upgrades mean it can offer complete treatment of blueberry shipments on-port. 

This new pilot service is the first of its kind on the West Coast and promises to reduce the cost of transporting blueberries, eliminate many tons of greenhouse gases and support local Californian and Peruvian growers.

The new service will begin as a one-year pilot program and will eliminate more than 2.2 million vehicle miles traveled across America. The blueberries will be imported from Peru’s Callao and Paita Ports via the Port of Hueneme, instead of being trucked from the East Coast. This reduction in road mileage will consequently cut air emissions by 3,660 tons of carbon dioxide and 11.56 tons of nitrous oxide during the course of the pilot.

Commenting on the launch of the project, Jess J. Ramirez, president of the Oxnard Harbor District Board that oversees the port, said: “This new opportunity is not only a game changer for our blueberry partners, but also will help reduce air emissions across the U.S. and spur local job creation, a win-win-win.” 

It is pioneering initiatives such as this that will enable cold chain capability and capacity across the U.S. to grow. 

As the nation, and world, responds to a plethora of immediate and long-term crises such as the coronavirus pandemic and growing food waste mountains, cold chains and their associated seaport nodes will only increase their prominence. 

And with the global cold chain market set grow at an annual rate of almost 8 percent over the course of the next four years, ports which continue to invest in reefer facilities look set to cash in.