Few people mention the reefer (yes that really is the name) when discussing our transportation infrastructure. And yet, everyday, the reefer (short for refrigerated container) touches most of our lives.
Where are we going? To why we can buy Roquefort cheese in NJ.
But we have to start with bananas…
While bananas were an overripe blackish oddity at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, only 25 years later United Fruit was able to distribute 14 million bunches in the U.S. and Canada. One reason produce developed a global reach was the development of refrigerated cargo ships that could keep bananas at 53° F.
You can see below the temperatures that different commodities need:
With each crop or food or drug needing a different temperature, shippers had to use separate vessels. As a result, a big shipload in unpredictable condition would arrive and temporarily swamp the market or disappoint consumers. We had a supply chain. But not the best one.
Then during the 1950s, a trucker named McLean figured out the container box. Ideal for dry goods, it made shipping more efficient because nothing had to be unloaded until the last stop. The ship just docked and its container was moved to the truck or the train.
You can see below how containers diminished the land and labor required for shipping:
Of course the next step during the 1970s was refrigerated containers but it took some science to get it right.
Interviewed in a 99 percent invisible podcast, the head of Reefer Services for Maersk tells us that the first refrigerated containers were like black boxes. No one knew why some shipments made it unscathed and others were a mess. To find out, they followed perishables from the farm to their destination. Monitoring airflow, temperature, humidity and gas concentrations, and even living in the reefers to see firsthand what was going on, they figured out the optimal environment for every commodity. The result? Individualized reefer climate control.
As a result, today I bought some Roquefort, (aka the king of blue cheese). I assume a reefer brought it to the U.S. from France.
Our Bottom Line: Transportation Infrastructure
A transportation infrastructure can be about much more than roads and bridges and railroads and airplanes. Because it is any network that moves people and goods, it includes the reefer. As a link in the “cold chain,” the reefer’s efficiency and dependability make our produce and flowers and stinky cheese affordable and available.