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A Good Arrival Case Study: Distressed Strawberries

The perils of mixed loads and temperature fluctuations
Trading Assistance

Both temperature tapes, as well as the reefer download, suggest the air temperatures in transit were maintained between34 and 36.5°F during the trip (with some very brief, periodic spikes to higher temperatures which appear to correspond to the reefer unit’s defrost cycles). Blue Book’s Transportation Guidelines provide the following rule of thumb for assessing air temperatures in transit—

Reefer systems are expected to provide steady temperatures in transit and should be set to run continuously, and not on a start-stop basis. Slight deviations in transit temperature based on, among other things, the location and accuracy of the temperature recorder, are inevitable and permissible. What constitutes a “slight deviation” will vary, but as a rule of thumb temperatures within the trailer should not deviate more than four (4) or five (5) degrees Fahrenheit from the agreed-upon transit temperature. If a temperature range is specified, any deviation will be assessed from the midpoint of the specified range. A temperature variance lasting less than twelve hours may also be categorized as a slight deviation, depending on the extent of the variance, the relative perishability of the commodity, and other circumstances. For example, a shipment involving multiple pick-ups or drops may be expected to experience temperature variance during loading and unloading. Nothing in this paragraph should be interpreted as to suggest a temperature deviation was slight, and therefore permissible or excused, when product has been frozen in transit.

Given that the bill of lading instructed the carrier to maintain air temperatures at 32°F, and given the highly perishable nature of strawberries, the temperature readings here test the limits of what we would call a “slight deviation.” Perhaps because this was a mixed load with different temperature instructions from different shippers, and perhaps because the driver was concerned about the risk of freezing injury, the reefer unit was set to 34° rather than 32°F—apparently without any communication with the shipper.

This, in our view, falls short of industry best practices. If the carrier receives different temperature instructions from different shippers, or, is not comfortable setting the reefer unit at the temperature the shipper(s) agreed upon, this discussion should have been held before the driver signed the bill of lading at shipping point, not after the product has been delivered.

If this were a full truckload of strawberries treated with Tectrol and wrapped in pallet bags, then we think the risk of freezing injury resulting from a properly functioning reefer unit set to run at 32°F would be minimal (we have seen cases where supply air temperatures in the high-20s for an extended period did not lower the pulp temperatures of strawberries treated with Tectrol anywhere near their highest freezing point of 30.7°F per the USDA). However, because this was a mixed load, we would hope the shipper acknowledged that these loads are typically shipped at warmer temperatures (e.g., 34°F). Ideally, the buyer would reach this understanding with the shipper when ordering the product, and communicate the agreed-upon temperature to the carrier in its rate confirmation to avoid a standoff at shipping point.