(March 19) When determining whether ocean-bound produce will be loaded on pallets or placed in containers, shippers have to ponder a number of factors, including the type of ships available, capabilities of the destination port, size of the deal and — obviously — price.

For example, Chiquita Brands International, Cincinnati, sends most of its produce to U.S. ports in containers, but it loads the majority of its product headed for European markets on pallets.

“It has to do with the ships involved,” said Chiquita communications director Mike Mitchell. “The ships we have in the European trade were built in the 1990s and were built to be very fast-moving ships with pallets underneath in the cargo holds and containers up on the decks.”

Sources said the majority of produce imports arrive in the U.S. in giant, refrigerated containers. Eighty-five percent of the cargo bound for the Port of Wilmington, Del., — the nation’s largest produce import destination at 1.6 million tons annually — is shipped by container, said deputy executive director Tom Keefer.

Keefer, however, said the number of break-bulk shipments is growing. He said large shippers such as Coral Gables, Fla.-based Turbana Corp.; Banacol Marketing Corp., Coral Gables; and Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, use the same method in Wilmington that Chiquita employs in Europe — palletized cargo in the holds and containers on decks to maximize capacity.

Containers don’t require a warehouse because they’re refrigerated and can simply be loaded onto a trailer chassis, but Keefer said palletized cargo could move faster through the supply chain because containers sometimes get bogged down in congested ports.

Keefer also said palletized cargo also is handled with a high level of expertise by reefer ship operators.

“This is all they do, whether it be fish, fruit or frozen meat,” he said. “They maintain their ships at a very high level. They’re experts in maintaining the cold chain.”

That’s not necessarily the case with container vessels, he said.

“It’s like a supermarket,” Keefer said. “You could get anything.”

Sean Mahoney, director of marketing for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, said most produce shipped into Philadelphia arrives on pallets.

“With break bulk it’s easier to establish the condition of the fruit because you can see it right away,” he said. “I think it helps with expediting the fruit.”

Mahoney said break bulk is considerably cheaper than container shipping.

“They go right from vineyards on trucks to the ships,” he said. “With containers, they have to go to the warehouse and be stuffed into a container and then taken to a port and staged for shipping. With break bulk, there’s a step cut out of the loop.”

Joe Estrada, who works in grower development and logistics for L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C., said break bulk costs $1 a box less than container shipping in the company’s Central American melon program, which ships to the west coast of Florida.

If break bulk costs less and has so many advantages, why would anyone use another method?

“The problem with break bulk is breaking the cold chain,” said Estrada, who pointed out that Central American melons are sometimes loaded on ships in extremely hot weather. “You have to invest in cold storage at the port. That’s a slow process, and the melons can get hot.”

Estrada said the majority of L&M’s imports are shipped in containers. The company started doing break bulk a few years ago with melons and later shifted its Argentine pears to break bulk as well.

“We’re going to see more of that as the U.S. continues to import more fruit,” he said.

Javier Gonzalez, melon program manager for Frontera Produce Ltd. branch in Boca Raton, Fla., said the company charters a vessel from November through May to transport weekly shipments of melons from Guatemala to Corpus Christi, Texas. The company also leases cold storage at that port.

“In order to maximize efficiency and have significant cost savings, you need to be shipping 1,000 pallets to 6,000 pallets a week to do break bulk,” he said.

He said the melon program averages 2,000 pallets a week, but for smaller programs — such as sweet onion, pineapple and mangoes from places like Peru, Ecuador, Panama and Brazil — Frontera has less volume and ships by containers into larger ports in Miami and Houston.

“If you have little volume, you have no business looking at break bulk,” he said. “For smaller programs, containers work very well. You stuff it, close it and it’s not your responsibility anymore. It’s the carrier’s responsibility. With break bulk, the ship only takes responsibility once the cargo is in the hold. Your liability and responsibility is quite a bit more.”