Argentinean blueberry shippers overwhelmingly said utilizing U.S. Department of Agriculture-required cold treatment on ocean vessels was too risky, and would only be used on a test basis this year.

The treatment, which involves keeping the produce at a temperature of 32 to 35 degrees for a period of up to 17 days cannot be broken for a single minute, or the process must be restarted.

“The cold treatment is interesting but many of the containers that have had it have been broken,” said Janice Honigberg, president of Sun Belle Inc., Washington, D.C. “The USDA has the option to turn the product away, it can be fumigated in the U.S. or it can be re-exported to Canada.”

Honigberg said a worst-case scenario would be delays in fumigating domestically, having to ship to a third country, or returning the shipment to South America. For that reason, she believes fumigating in Argentina is a much better option since the industry is set up to do it rapidly.

“A lot of people show frustration for the cold treatment,” agreed Robert Verloop, vice president of marketing at Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla. “It’s an option that we keep open, but our preference is not to do it.

Verloop also said that Naturipe believes the fruit is of better quality when it goes through fumigation and air shipment.

He said the company will also fumigate and ship via ocean vessel under certain conditions.

“We have very strict controls from the farm all the way really to the retailers to the customers doors,” he said, adding that this is possible because Naturipe has ownership or controlling parts every step of the way to ensure the product moves quickly and under the right conditions.

Honigberg agreed that the capacity to get fumigated fruit to market with high quality depends heavily on having the infrastructure in place.

“It includes the entire system of collecting fruit from the grower, pre-cooling it rapidly, packing it and pre-cooling it rapidly, through the fumigation as required and to the airports,” she said.

Challenges and solutions

Scott Wood, director of the Treatment Quality Assurance Unit for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Raleigh, N.C., said challenges to keeping the cold treatment would include properly calibrating probes in the container, proper placement of the probes, and ensuring the container is free of holes or cracks.

“The problem that occurs is that any of the three probes are not maintaining the temperature for the entire amount of time, and for some reason it drifted above. This could be a problem with equipment failure,” he said. “If they go above by a tenth of a degree, they are rejected.”

Wood also said probes must be placed in three pallets in the front, middle and back of the container. The container must then be sealed by a cold treatment expert in the country of origin, who would provide the calibration documentation and the number of the container and cargo to the ship’s captain.

“Other pitfalls might be when it begins in a new country, and the new country hasn’t performed any cold treatments before there could be errors made along the line until everyone gets up to speed,” he added.

Wally Maje, plant health safeguard specialist for the Port of Philadelphia, said if the process is broken, two things can be done: The process can start over at an approved cold treatment facility, such as the ones in Gloucester, N.J., or Kenneth Square, Pa., or the berries can be fumigated upon arrival by bringing them up to 70 degrees and shooting them for 3 ½ hours.

Maje said blueberry shipments that break the cold chain would not be turned away before they are offered both of these options.

“Those two requirements have to be presented to them,” he said. Maje added that if the vessel arrives early, the container can be hooked up to an electrical system for the remaining days.

Wood said that a common problem contributing to a break in the cold chain is the quality of the container. Containers that are up to 10 years old have a higher probability of failure.

“They should be using one- to two-year-old containers properly calibrated by trained officers in Argentina,” he said. “The failure rate is pretty low.”

Wood said that even if cold treatment was incomplete upon arrival, the container can be transferred to land for the remaining days.

“These ports are extremely well trained with cargo, so it’s really a smooth operation,” he said.

Verloop said another risk of the cold treatment requirement to maintain temperature within such a small window is freezing the fruit, which effectively destroys its value in the fresh market.

“Cold treatment is still too risky for most shipping companies, considering the value of a container of blueberries,” he said. “Berries that fall below 32 degrees will freeze, causing cell wall ruptures and cause juice to leak out (once the berries warm up). This makes the clamshell unsalable and will become a source for decay throughout the clamshell and potential beyond.”

Fumigating before shipping

Verloop said one option for shipping via ocean carriers from Argentina without using cold treatment is to fumigate and then ship, but conditions must be perfect.

“If the conditions aren’t perfect, you run into quality problems,” he said, discussing the effect of diminished shelf life when blueberries are gassed. “You add another couple of weeks to it and if you don’t move it that rapidly to the marketplace, you’re going to get fruit that starts to break down.”

Verloop said that requires Naturipe to presell much of its fruit, limit what goes into the retail market and make constant assessments regarding which fruit will sustain the trip.

“We have enough experience in Argentina to know how to judge what fruit should go air versus what should go on the vessel,” he said.

Blueberry shippers debate cold treatment options