Treated properly, fresh produce maintains its quality and appearance from harvest to consumption. While transportation takes only a few days, the shelf life of fresh produce can be as long as a month or more, Handling during transit plays a critical role in maintaining product life. For instance, allowing some stone fruit to warm up 30% above the recommended transit and storage temperature can cut shelf life by half. Allowing ethylene-sensitive produce to come into contact with fruit or vegetables that produce ethylene can dramatically decrease its potential shelf life (Head lettuce ‘rusts’ when in proximity to apples).
Plant tissue begins losing moisture immediately after harvest, especially through cut surfaces. Maintaining high humidity levels during transit helps slow this process. Unfortunately, the heating and cooling inherent in the normal refrigeration cycle accelerates this process. Refrigeration unit manufacturers have made great strides in recent years to reduce temperature variation and slow the amount of moisture pulled from produce during transit.
In general, shippers and receivers know their products well and take appropriate measures to maintain the best possible transportation environment. Carriers have a responsibility to assist in this effort by providing clean, well-maintained equipment, properly serviced and fueled, ready to roll. In addition, drivers should carry a thermometer so they can verify that product temperature loaded in a trailer matches that specified on the shipping papers. Thermometers need not be elaborate, but they must be clean and accurate. Immersing a thermometer in a container filled mostly with ice along with some water and verifying that it reads 32°F should be sufficient to judge accuracy. There are portable, disposable alcohol pads that can be used to sanitize the thermometer probe prior to use.
Drivers with produce experience usually are expert at handling it. However, truckload fleets have a constant need for new drivers, some of whom may be unfamiliar with proper care of fresh produce. Our job within the produce industry is to help these drivers understand what they are hauling. We can’t simply hand a driver a bill of lading and expect that they know what the environmental requirements of that particular commodity are. Drivers are critically important to us and we need to take the time to educate them to support our businesses.