Given the perishability of the strawberries and the number of truckloads shipped, it’s no surprise that Blue Book Services receives a number of claims involving strawberries each year. But in 2022, we seemed to have an unusually high number.
The assessment provided here (revised slightly from the original) is an example of one of the more extreme examples of a trouble load involving this high dollar, high perishability commodity.
ABC Company was hired to arrange for a shipment of strawberries to be picked up in Southern California and delivered to a retailer’s facility in North Carolina.
The load was picked up and tendered for delivery as scheduled. Upon arrival, however, receiving personnel complained about the condition of the fruit and refused delivery.
The load was then taken to a wholesaler in Philadelphia, where it was inspected by the USDA two days later. The USDA inspection showed very high levels of overripe berries, bruising, and decay with a checksum of 66 percent, including 53 percent serious defects.
In reviewing the documentation submitted, we note first that readings from the portable recorder are warmer than instructed.
The bill of lading instructs the carrier to maintain temperature control between 32 and 34 degrees, and yet the readings from the portable recorder indicate air temperatures (in at least one location in the trailer) between 35 and 40 degrees throughout the trip, including approximately 12 hours at 40 degrees.
Our Transportation Guidelines provide the following rule of thumb with respect to temperature variance—
(6.2) 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 pick-ups 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.
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.
Note(s) to Section (6.2)
The rule of thumb referred to in this section applies to air temperatures recorded by portable devices attached to the outside of the pallet or packaging containing the produce. Return air temperature sensors on reefer units are separated from the produce (the cargo) by a bulkhead wall and reside in close proximity to the reefer unit’s refrigeration coils. Consequently, reefer units tend to record somewhat cooler temperatures than recording devices placed with the cargo.
Therefore, given the perishability of strawberries and the amount of time the portable readings indicate temperatures were more than 4 or 5 degrees warmer than 33 degrees (the midpoint of the temperature instruction), we would have to conclude that the carrier failed to properly control air temperatures in at least on location within the trailer.
That said, we would not characterize the portable readings as extreme.
And given that the reefer download indicates normal supply and return air temperatures, it does not appear the entire trailer was warm. The return air readings are within 1 degree of the set point, and the supply air temperatures are generally within 2 to 4 degrees of the return air readings.
Given the warm readings from the portable recorder, we would expect to see colder supply air temperatures (say 4 to 5 degrees cooler than the return air readings) as the unit worked to control temperatures in the rear of the trailer (where portable recorders are typically placed).
The less-than-expected difference between the supply and return air readings suggests the cooled air may not have been circulating properly throughout the length of the trailer.
In any event, the temperature readings provided here—including the pulp temperature readings taken by the USDA of 32 to 33 degrees—are not, in our view, indicative of a severe temperature control problem during this trip.
And yet, the USDA inspection results can only be characterized as extreme—not only is the checksum 66 percent, but serious defects are 53 percent, and all samples taken showed significant defects.
Even in view of the delay (over the weekend) in obtaining the USDA inspection, and the warmer than expected readings indicated by the portable recorder, we believe the level of defects recorded here suggests these strawberries were not in good condition at shipping point (the first element in establishing a carrier claim under the common law of common carriage).
And while the carrier may have aggravated the poor condition of the strawberries, it is not clear that this product would have been salvageable even after normal transportation conditions.
Therefore, in our view, based on the documentation provided, it does not appear that a carrier claim would be supported.
That said, for mediation purposes, the warm portable readings may provide some ground for the carrier taking responsibility for a small portion of the losses incurred.
This case is somewhat exceptional because more often than not, abnormal transportation conditions make it very difficult for carriers to effectively counter a shipper’s assertion of good condition at origin.
But, here, given the severity of the defects documented at destination we do not believe the shipper’s claim was fully supported. As always, we welcome your feedback.