LAS VEGAS — A global shortage of refrigerated shipping containers could affect imports of fresh produce this year as the economy recovers.

Orders for new refrigerated containers have increased this year, but shipping companies remain reticent over the economic outlook, Arlo Eslinger, global service director for Thermo King, said during the United Fresh Produce Association’s annual convention in Las Vegas.

“The shipping companies don’t want to overreact,” Eslinger said April 22 during a “Future of Produce Transportation” panel discussion. “They realize there’s a shortage. But it’s still too early to tell” if the economy’s recovery will continue.

A unit of manufacturing conglomerate Ingersoll-Rand Co., Thermo King makes refrigeration units for trucks, rail cars and ocean shipping containers. Thermo King’s customers include Del Monte Foods Co. and Dole Food Co., Eslinger said.

“Business is definitely picking up in 2010,” Eslinger said. “It started picking up in late 2009. Is it going to continue is the million-dollar question.”

Orders for new refrigerated shipping containers totaled 40,000 to 50,000 in 2009, compared with about 100,000 in 2007, according to panel members, who included Benjamin Hernandez, service manager with Maersk Container Industry AS.

Last year’s orders probably weren’t enough to keep pace with demand, Eslinger said.

“Everybody realizes there’s a shortage of containers,” Eslinger said. “But last year, no one was replacing equipment.”

Now, the economy is picking up and companies are demanding new equipment.”

Shipments pick up, but containers are limited