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The problem with reefer downloads

Long on information, but often short on answers

Reefer downloads provide streams of data. Temperature readings for supply and return air are provided in tenths of degrees. And alongside these readings, information on operating mode, set point, and ambient air provide relevant information when disputes involving fresh produce arise.

Ironically, however, in many cases the reefer download doesn’t tell us whether the carrier properly controlled air temperatures in transit.

In this article we look at what a reefer download tells us, and just as importantly, what a reefer download does not tell us.

A good-looking download
When a reefer download looks good—that is, does not reveal any problems—carriers will often point to it as proof positive they properly maintained air temperatures in transit. After all, the amount and sophistication of the data looks impressive.

It must be remembered, however, that the temperature readings displayed on the reefer download are captured by temperature sensors on a reefer unit residing in the nose of a fifty-three-foot trailer. Also, the reefer unit is separated from the produce by the return-air bulkhead wall.

Because carriers are expected to control temperatures, and thus protect the cargo throughout the length of the trailer, readings from the reefer unit do not provide a complete picture.

To illustrate, imagine a scenario where the cool air in the trailer “short-circuits” due to a torn or detached air delivery chute. In this scenario, there may be no red flags if you’re only considering temperature readings from the nose of the trailer, but, of course, the air temperature in the rear of the trailer is the concern.

Similarly, when the seals around the rear doors and/or insulation in the trailer as a whole is poor, and especially when outside temperatures are warm, we would expect to see a significant difference between temperature readings taken by the reefer unit and the temperatures in the rear of the trailer where portable recorders are typically placed.

Because temperatures may vary in different locations within the trailer, Section (6.2) of our Transportation Guidelines provides some leeway for carriers—

Refrigeration (or “reefer”) systems should be set to run continuously, and not on a start-stop or cycle 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 (12) 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. E.g., a shipment involving multiple pickups or drops may be expected to experience temperature variance during loading and unloading. Nothing in this Section should be interpreted to suggest a temperature deviation was slight, and therefore permissible or excused, when product has been frozen in transit.

But this section also provides that product throughout the trailer needs to be protected—

Carriers are expected to maintain air temperatures throughout the trailer. Accordingly, air temperature readings from a single recorder may show a breach of the contract of carriage even if air temperature readings from other locations in the trailer do not.

In other words, when a portable recorder reveals a temperature problem, this may be sufficient to show that air temperatures were not properly maintained in transit, regardless of whether the reefer download reveals the problem. This has significance with respect to carrier claims, and with respect to claims between buyers and sellers where the buyer alleges a breach of the warranty of suitable shipping condition.

Buyers and sellers of produce are very familiar with the warranty of suitable shipping condition (often referred to as “good arrival”), which is defined by PACA regulations (emphasis added)—

Suitable shipping condition, in relation to direct shipments, means that the commodity, at time of billing, is in a condition which, if the shipment is handled under normal transportation service and conditions, will assure delivery without abnormal deterioration at the contract destination agreed upon between the parties. If a good delivery standard for a commodity is set forth in Section 46.44, and that commodity at the contract destination contains deterioration in excess of any tolerance provided therein, it will be considered abnormally deteriorated. The seller has no responsibility for any deterioration in transit if there is no contract destination agreed upon between the parties. 7 CFR Sec. 46.43(j).

Simply put, an F.O.B. buyer alleging that a produce seller breached the sales agreement by failing to provide product in suitable shipping condition will need to be prepared to show temperatures in transit were normal.

A buyer that disregards an “abnormal” report from a portable recorder because of a “normal” report from a reefer unit, is unlikely to get very far with its claim.

So what good are reefer downloads?
Although reefer downloads do not provide a complete picture of transit temperatures, they do provide pivotal information in a number of claim scenarios.

For instance, when the report from the portable recorder is inconclusive, a favorable reefer download may help a carrier defend against a claim and/or help a buyer support its claim against the seller.

Reefer downloads tend to be especially helpful where claimants allege the carrier froze the produce en route. Every year it seems we see carriers successfully defend cold claims where freezing or freezing injury is reported at destination by showing that the supply air temperatures never fell below the highest freezing point for the commodity in question.

Downloads also tend to be helpful, even dispositive, in situations where the receiver signs for the portable recorder at destination (i.e., signs the delivery receipt without reporting the recorder missing), but somehow the temperature report from the portable recorder never surfaces.

Assuming the reefer download is favorable to the carrier, any claim against the carrier would need to overcome both the negative inference created by the missing portable report and the reefer download.

Before the widespread availability of temperature reports from reefer units, carriers were often unable to provide affirmative evidence to show they properly controlled temperatures.

This was particularly troubling in situations where the USDA inspection showed warm pulp temperatures that were often blamed on carriers, even when the product had been unloaded for considerable time prior to inspection.

So, while reefer downloads will continue to cause confusion as some carriers point exclusively to downloads while disregarding information from portable recorders, the problems with reefer downloads are, of course, just limitations.

Properly interpreted, the information they provide is helpful and tends to lead to fairer dispute resolution and even better performance as carriers and shippers alike work to debrief trouble loads and continually improve performance.

Doug Nelson is Vice President of Trading Assistance for Blue Book Services Inc.