From fresh fish to eggs, milk, and raw produce, perishable items are a staple in local and cross-border trade.
For instance, perishable goods constitute over 70% of local freight in the US,1 while mainland China is one of the world’s largest fruit importers with over 7 million import tons in 2021.2
Perishable food items are also among the most sensitive shipment types. Many of these items need to stay within specific temperature ranges or require special packaging and handling measures. As a result, shipping perishable products can be challenging and expensive.
Seeing as perishables continue to enjoy a strong presence in global trade, learning how to correctly and profitably handle them is imperative. This guide explains how to ship perishable food and smart tips for a seamless process.
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According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a perishable shipment is vulnerable to deterioration outside specific temperatures or environmental conditions.
In the case of such cargo, minor errors or exposure to normal conditions for durable goods can lead to waste. And with the growing consumer demand for better traceability, transparency, and freshness of food products, shippers face a complex task in shipping these items.
Some of the common difficulties confronting businesses in shipping non-durable items include:
Properly shipping perishable food isn’t just a matter of convenience and profitability. It’s also critical for sustainable and responsible business.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), roughly 40% of global food produced is wasted between harvest and retail, including through transportation.4 Good shipping practices can help save some of that food which we can use to tackle world hunger. Likewise, it can lead to savings of $120 – $300 billion for businesses.5
Before taking any action, think about the types of food products you’re shipping and the care they may require. Certain perishables, such as bread or pastries, maybe non-refrigerated. Others like dairy and fresh produce may be refrigerated, while a third category applies to frozen items like meat and seafood.
In the case of non-refrigerated items, consider their ideal shipping states and temperature, and plan accordingly. Likewise, refrigerated or frozen foods may need to be cooled sufficiently before shipping. Often, you’ll need to maintain these products’ ideal temperature for about 30 hours prior.
Before packaging, some of these items will also need to be protected against harm like water damage from thawing. Solutions you can implement include using waterproof or airtight wrapping, padding, or foam inserts.
Refrigerated and frozen foods must be maintained at just the right temperature during shipping. Shippers employ many solutions for this purpose, including dry ice, insulated boxes, and ice packs.
Proper packaging depends on whether your shipment consists of non-refrigerated, refrigerated, or frozen food.
For non-refrigerated foods like apples, wrap the item in breathable packing and place it inside a corrugated cardboard box. Be sure to fill any empty spaces with padding material to prevent movement. You can employ common padding materials like tissue paper and bubble wrap.
Refrigerated and frozen foods might need to be sealed first in waterproof or airtight bags. Place the bag within an insulated container and surround it with dry ice or cold packs. For packages cooled with dry ice, ensure the ice per package doesn’t exceed 5.5 pounds. Any package that exceeds this dry ice weight may be treated as a hazardous material.
Also, remember not to place dry ice in boxes with airtight seals, as gases from the ice must be able to escape. Likewise, you should ensure that the ice isn’t directly touching the food products. Finally, place the insulated container inside a corrugated cardboard box.
Every perishable shipment package must be correctly sealed and labeled. International carriers and logistics firms, such as FedEx,6 recommend the ‘H’ tape sealing method. Using this method, tape the top, bottom, seams, and flaps of the box with a minimum of three strips of pressure-sensitive tape.
Next, mark the shipping box with the word “perishable” in bold font. You can also indicate your preferred box orientation with arrows and “This End Up” markings. If the package includes fragile objects such as glass or delicate food items, make sure to also apply “Fragile” markings to the box.
Lastly, international shipping regulations require precise labeling if you’re shipping with dry ice. The box must carry the words “Dry Ice” or “Carbon Dioxide Solid” and “UN 1845”. You must also indicate the net weight of dry ice in kilograms and display the name and address of the shipper and recipient.
Your final step will be to place the packaged shipment aboard a carrier. You should have concluded arrangements in advance with your carrier of choice.
When selecting a shipping company, make sure they offer speedy and seamless delivery, which will be vital to maintaining the freshness of your goods. They should also be able to provide the specific shipping option you need, whether that’s overnight or next-day delivery, and a refrigerated shipping unit – called a reefer – if that’s what your goods need.
Certain carriers may prefer shipments with less dry ice than internationally allowed or specific prep that shippers must undertake. Work with your carrier to determine their particular dry ice limits and packaging/handling requirements.
Finally, liaise closely with the recipient so they know what to expect with the package, how to handle dry ice and post-shipping storage requirements.
Successfully shipping perishable items requires precise planning and flawless execution. Add these tips to the steps we’ve outlined above for a process that minimizes loss and enhances profitability.
Asides from the rules imposed by international bodies like the IATA, many countries require compliance with certain additional rules. These rules may dictate what perishable items can enter or leave the country, packaging requirements, or allied regulations.
In Australia, for instance, meat imports are not allowed. Likewise, the country will reject fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and dairy products for import.7 Knowing these rules ahead of time and planning accordingly will save you time and money.
Certain food items cannot be on the road for more than a limited period. Therefore, if you’re going to accomplish flawless delivery within the required time, your fulfillment schedule will need to be precise.
Anticipate shipping lead times, cold chain integrity, port congestion, and other factors that might affect delivery. With this foreknowledge, you can plan better and design a workflow that gets the products to your clients on time and in excellent condition.
Sometimes your cold chain holds steady, and the goods get delivered on schedule, but things still go sour. To forestall this, it’s worth remembering that certain food items, such as some fruits and vegetables, not only need to remain chilled but also need to breathe.
Using netting or breathable plastic wrapping can help preserve freshness and ensure the products arrive virtually in the same condition you sent them.
Since time is such a significant factor in shipping perishables, cutting down on how long the goods need to travel can be beneficial. With multi-origin shipping, you can deliver food products from warehouses closest to the client’s destination.
This way, you spend less money on dry ice and gel packs needed to maintain the extreme temperatures of frozen food. Likewise, you increase the chances of a delivery that arrives fresh and on time.
While tackling perishables shipping solo feels natural for B2B sellers, remember that your buyer can also play a part. Communicate constantly and clearly with them to unearth opportunities where they can contribute to a successful shipment.
For example, you can liaise with buyers to receive the goods at the halfway point. Or you could offer in-store pickup at a discount which saves you the expense and stress of shipping.
When all is said and done, the reality is that things can sometimes go wrong in the ways we least expect. Therefore, it’s critical to always ensure your goods are properly insured during shipping, depending on the applicable Incoterms.
Insurance can cover the costs of loss, mishandling, negligence, or other factors that may impair successful delivery.
Technology can provide a bird's eye view and detailed involvement in the perishables shipping process. For example, you can remotely monitor the temperature while in transit, verify correct handling procedures, and anticipate potential shipping challenges using technology.
You can also leverage software to identify the best shipping routes and rates and the best ways to improve your value chain.
Alibaba.com makes shipping perishables easy and stress-free for B2B sellers with its proprietary freight solution.
Alibaba.com Freight is a logistics and freight platform that enables a seamless and cost-competitive shipping process. Shippers can view and compare prices from twelve shipping companies, letting them access a wide range of competitive service options.
The platform supports shipments from China and Vietnam to nine North American and Europe locations. Shipping options available include ocean freight, air shipping, and air express.
Alibaba.com Freight provides an end-to-end process that includes tracking and live updates, meaning you can keep tabs on every aspect of the process and ensure your goods arrive as expected.
Would you like to learn more about Alibaba.com Freight and how it can support your e-commerce business? Then, open a seller account on Alibaba.com to get started.
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