(Oct. 27) As if truck shortages weren’t enough, problems at West Coast ports could be slowing down produce shipments as the holiday season approaches.

A combination of added import traffic from China and India and struggles to find enough labor to handle the extra loads has caused some backups at West Coast ports such as Long Beach and Los Angeles.

According to The New York Times, imports from China and India are up as much as 20% from a year ago. Meanwhile, a plan to add 3,000 nonunion workers to the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports has fallen short of expectations, leaving the ports short-handed and many loads, including some produce, stranded at sea for as long as six days.

According to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, the maximum number of ships waiting to unload at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports each month has increased from 68 in July to 94 in October. The average is 35 to 50.

By comparison, the 2002 lockout of dockworkers shut down the ports for 10 days and left 129 ships stranded offshore during that time.


Claire Smith, director of corporate communications for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., said the delays haven’t hit Sunkist much because the citrus company is between seasons. However, she said the delays could be a problem when the navel orange season picks up again in November.

“The good thing is, if it’s waiting on the ship, it’s refrigerated, and if it’s waiting on the dock it’s refrigerated,” she said. “It won’t affect quality, but it is a time thing.”

Other companies, such as The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, said they also are between deals right now so the delays are not having much of an effect.

“I’m not aware of any delays,” said Steve Woodyear-Smith, director of kiwifruit and mango categories for Oppenheimer. “But we don’t have a whole bunch of fruit coming in right now. The Brazilian mango deal is just winding down.”


Not everybody is so lucky. Avi Crane, owner of Prime Produce International LLC, Lake For-est, Calif., said the dock problems, combined with prior notification and other security meas-ures, have caused delays for Chilean avocado shipments.

“We have no certainty of when we are going to get the product into our cold storage,” he said.

Crane said those delays have increased costs along the supply chain, starting with the trucking companies that have to pay more for their drivers to wait for the fruit to be unloaded.

“Things usually get done very quickly,” he said. “But now all of that has been disrupted. Some of the trucking companies have decided not to work on the ports because it’s costing them too much money for each load.”

Further adding to the delays, Crane said, are U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors, who — because of their own time constraints — won’t come to the dock to inspect the fruit until it’s actually on the dock. Crane said that means that, instead of having the inspector waiting when the fruit arrives, companies have to unload the fruit, call the inspector and then wait for him or her to arrive.

“It has really added uncertainty and cost to the whole deal,” he said. “And unfortunately the one who ends up paying is usually the grower. It’s an added cost of doing business in the U.S.A.”

But things may get better for produce shippers as the holiday season nears. Most goods for retail holiday sales are shipped through the ports in September and October, which means congestion could ease somewhat by November.