@TheHelm has been delving into the international trade mechanisms that play a pivotal role in fulfilling the complex demands of markets across the globe. None of these demands are quite so fundamental to human existence as that of the need for food. With a growing global population and increasing environmental challenges, meeting the demand for food is more crucial than ever.

One landmark in this journey is the advent of international seaborne trade in deep frozen food, which has significantly contributed to addressing the challenges of population growth. This trade enables access to high-protein and abundant food products in regions where local supply falls short. Via technological advances in refrigeration, refined environmental control, and advanced communication methods, the trade is now helping to meet the increasing demand for food.

History of the frozen food trade

In the late 19th century, meat products were essentially seasonal in the heavily industrialised northern hemisphere, whereas in the southern hemisphere, many locations enjoyed temperate grasslands and relatively small populations. Connecting supply and demand was the logical solution.

In the 19th century, there were no refrigeration plants ashore to freeze the products before loading on the ship. It was significant that early shipments relied on a vessel-based refrigeration system. The economic viability of shipping frozen meat from the southern to northern hemisphere began over 140 years ago, when the first shipment of frozen meat made its way from New Zealand to the UK. Chilled meat was loaded onto the sailing barque Dunedin before it was frozen on board via a coal-powered freezing plant. Upon arrival, the cargo was pronounced to be in excellent condition – a commercial success and the beginning of a lucrative trade.

In time, shoreside cold storage facilities were developed and the frozen cargo was carried in the holds of cargo and passenger liners. With the subsequent introduction of refrigerated containers (reefers) in the 1970s, the efficiency and reach of frozen food transport expanded dramatically. Today, the trade in frozen shipments covers an incredible diversity of seafood, meat, and vegetables. The expansion has been remarkable and remains on an upward trajectory, thanks to market demand.

A booming trade

The global frozen food market is thriving, with significant growth anticipated in the coming years. It is projected that the market size will exceed USD 610 billion by 2032, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.6% during the forecast period spanning from 2023 to 2032.

Following the United States and Japan, Germany stands as the third-largest importer of frozen vegetables globally, commanding a 20% share of the European market. While Europe and the United States remain major consumers of frozen food products, with Europe along accounting for 37% of the global frozen food market in 2022, Asia Pacific is poised to dominate the frozen food market during the abovementioned forecast period, with China and India holding the largest market shares in the region.

Technology makes it possible

To trace the technological developments in the frozen food industry, we turn the clock back to the 1970s, which saw the introduction of refrigerated containers with integrated units on container ships. The transition from storing frozen cargo in bulk holds underdeck to using containers connected to a central cold plant presented technical challenges. In addition, while containerisation achieved great efficiency in asset utilisation at ports and terminals, it also experienced challenges in terms of container design and operation, and the early adoption of data analysis in logistics planning.

Not all specialised refrigerated ships made the switch to containerisation. Many remain in service to this day, especially in smaller ports where they can easily adapt to cargo demands. However, these ships suffered a decline as the trade saw rapid technical developments in integral refrigerated containers powered by electrical machinery within the container, which could connect to the ship’s generator system. These containers offer greater flexibility, are easier to operate both on shore and at sea, and are more cost-effective over the lifespan of a ship and its container fleet.

Further advancements in the design of integral refrigerated containers allow them to maintain temperatures consistently between -30°C and 30°C over a 12-year lifespan. Specialised reefers have been developed to create environments as cold as -60°C, ideal for preserving frozen seafood. For non-frozen commodities, the development of controlled atmosphere reefer container systems ensures not only the right temperature and humidity, but also maintains precise control of gas chemistry to keep perishables fresh.

Looking ahead

The reefer sector is projected to expand significantly in the coming years. Its market size is expected to grow at a CAGR of 8% from 2023 through 2030. This translates into a container fleet size of 4.1 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2023, growing to 7.2 million by 2030. This increase will likely not be due solely to frozen food demand, but also the expansion of the global pharmaceutical trade.

Moving forward, manufacturers are aiming to improve the energy efficiency of these machines, integrate data and AI to enhance logistics efficiency, and reduce food waste during transportation. By tapping the capabilities of AI, these containers will be able provide predictive data and actionable insights in areas such as temperature monitoring and operational optimisation.

As the world’s population continues to grow, the demand for frozen food transport will likely increase. With advancements in technology and improvements in logistics, the industry is poised to meet these challenges while ensuring the efficient and sustainable delivery of essential food supplies to global markets.

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