According to the FAO, 14% of global food waste occurs in transit. (Transit, as used in this case, refers from when the fruits and vegetables are harvested up until when it gets to the shop shelves.) This represents a significant portion of fruits and vegetables around the world that go to waste. Unfortunately, in the event of such damage in transit, international traders or importers and exporters of these perishable products suffer the most as they are expected to show evidence of the handling, quality and condition of the fruits or vegetables in question.
The options which are open to them today are not optimal. In our recent visit to the fruit farms in Cape Town, South Africa, we were made to understand that sometimes, exporters in South Africa have had to fly all the way to China to verify the outturn condition of the fruits shipped. Mostly, buyers and sellers of fruits rely on external third party inspectors such as Quality Assurance experts or Cargo Surveyors to conduct inspections on their behalf.
Only a small portion of shipped fruits and vegetables are inspected at origin and at destination and this is largely due to the costs involved in doing so. In Europe, inspecting a reefer container of fruits could set back the requesting company anywhere between EUR600 to EUR1000 or more.
A significant portion of the wastage or loss experienced results from human acts or omissions. Either someone somewhere did what they were not supposed to do or they omitted to do what they ought to do.
Since 2020, the world has seen a dramatic shift in the way business is conducted. There has been a sharp increase in home deliveries, zoom calls have been adopted even by the staunchest of analogue believers. Traditional surveyors are fast being replaced by remote surveyors. Remote surveys and inspections consist of leveraging digital tools like smartphones and tablets to carry out surveys or inspections from a distance. Using live feeds from a smartphone or tablet, fruit importers and exporters can carry out remote inspections of their cargo pre and post-shipment, while cutting the cost of on-site inspections and surveys by as much as 60%, compared to physical surveys.
So how can the fruit industry embrace this technology for its advantage? How can mobile phones be leveraged to conduct proof of condition surveys?
Remote surveys with the use of a mobile phone is an ideal solution for performing surveys when travel is restricted, or when on-site attendance could be too costly. The inspections are carried out in the form of pictures, short videos and structured text. All data is transferred to the dashboard where the insurer or shipping company can access analysed objective information on the handling and quality of cargo at outturn. The mobile phone in this inspection is primarily a tool for surveys and does not save any form of data.
What is a condition survey and why is it important?
A condition survey is a visual inspection of an object, in this case, fruits, typically conducted by experienced individuals known as surveyors. It is important because, in order to assign blame in the event of damage to cargo in transit, one must be able to show that the cargo in question was of sound condition at one point and turned out in a damaged condition at another.
Elements of a condition survey.
We conducted a study of over 800 condition surveys and we found that condition survey reports typically contain similar types of information. These include:
- The parties involved
- Port of loading and port of discharge
- Shipment and delivery dates
- Type of cargo shipped
- Confirmation of harvest dates of the fruits
- Confirmation of the stuffing pattern within the reefer container
- The confirmation of the booking instructions as found on the booking note or the survey report
- Visual verification of the condition of the fruits (photo of firmness, softness, penetrometer, colour, flesh, mould etc)
- Cause of loss or damage (delay, temperature, contamination, pre-shipment defects etc)
From the above list, most of the information is publicly available if you know where to look. For those relating to the condition of the fruits, mobile phones are good enough these days to clearly confirm this.
Most growers have documents confirming the start and end of harvest seasons. However, they do not have any visual evidence which serves the purpose of bringing objectivity to their internally produced documents. As such, taking photos of the bins together with the internal documents would serve as stronger evidence of the harvest dates of the fruits in question.
If you have ever handled a case against a shipping line, one of the questions they would ask you is to show the storage temperatures of the fruits before they took custody or possession of the same. For those who may not be aware, the shelf life of fruits is a direct function of time and temperature. Of course, other factors do impact fruit quality too. As such, if the fruit is stored for a long time at the exporter’s premises or cold store at the wrong temperature, the ripening process may be triggered such that despite the carrier’s best efforts, it would arrive in poor condition.
To prove this storage temperature, cold rooms typically have daily temperature logs. But again, to make it objective, one could take photos of when the fruits first came in and pair them with photos showing the current cold store temperature. All these can be correlated to the temperature logs and seizes to be just an internal document.
Fruit Palletisation and Container Stuffing.
Depending on the type of fruit, different types of packaging and pallets may be required. Use the wrong one and you run the risk of collapsing the whole stack. Most if not all fruit exporters have deep expertise when it comes to packing their fruits and getting them ready for shipment. However, in the event of damage in transit, one would need to be able to show proof of what was done. A shipping line would not assume that because you have been in business for over 30 years, you are great at preparing your fruits to withstand the ordinary perils of the sea. As such, taking a photograph like that in the image below to show the layers of the boxes and the side supports would help shift the burden on the carrier.
Without diving too deep on airflow within a reefer container, it is essential to note that for proper cool air circulation, the pallets and or cartons within a reefer container have to be stowed or stuffed in a particular way so as to force the supply of air of from the container to go through the boxes of fruits rather than around them. Often, by the time a physical inspector gets to the cold store at the receiving end, the reefer containers are not available for inspections. As such, it is critical for the shipper or exporter to be able to show how their pallets were stuffed. As you load each pallet, take photos to show how close they were together. To be even more protected, take photos of any dunnages you may have on the T bar floor to prevent short airflow.
Container Setting and Condition.
One of the duties of a carrier is to provide you with a container that is not only fit to withstand the ordinary perils of the sea but also fit to safely transport your particular fruits in question. This is why you are often expected to send your instructions through a booking note. This document would contain information such as the type of cargo being shipped and the required temperature for optimum shelf life. From this, the liner would set the container following the parameters provided. Sometimes, they get this wrong. Celsius gets confused with Fahrenheit or decimal points placed at the wrong places.
While the applicable laws prohibit the carrier from delegating their duty to provide seaworthy containers, arguments have been advanced by them that the shipper has a responsibility to check the containers when received. To avoid long negotiation times, take clear photos of all sides of the container including the settings. You would want to capture the temperature and vent settings but also the general appearance of the container to ensure there are no dents, holes or cracks. Also, do this internally to check that the baffle plate is shaped correctly and that the T bar floor is free from debris.
Container Sealing and Exchange.
The responsibility shifts from the exporter to the first carrier once the container is sealed and handed over to them. A container was designed for this specific purpose. To enable easy exchange from one leg of the voyage to another. From road to rail to sea. Since then, the question of who is to blame is a permanent one international traders and carriers have had to contend with. To help tie all loose ends, always ensure you have a short 30 seconds video evidencing the sealing of the container and photos showing when it is loaded on the first carrier. This could be your local trucking company or an international freight forwarder.
Tying up all your evidence together.
In the fruit industry today, there is an overreliance on Whatsapp and dropbox communication. However, we understand from our users that they experience language challenges when discussing via these methods and also photos and videos shared without context and any means of verification makes it hard for them to do their jobs.
That is why we are solving this problem at OPTIMIZ. We have designed a very flexible workflow builder which ensures that every internal process can be replicated. This enables our users to collect the right information at the right point. Also, we are adding objectivity and context by making it hard if not impossible to temper with the collected evidence. As such, by using our solution, you create the independence which is provided by surveyors or required by shipping lines and freight forwarders.
It is also possible to collate all of this collected information and transform it into a report. This report then serves the purpose of negotiating with the liable third party.