Photo: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, 2013.
Chilled meat represents a significant export market, particularly for countries with active livestock farming, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Argentina. However, meat exporters are usually located long distances from major consumption markets. Conventionally, meat was exported to foreign markets in a frozen form. However, this state implies a loss of quality because ice crystals are forming during the freezing process (blast freezing reduces this risk), which can damage tissue. Thus, there is a strong business case to export unfrozen meat at chilled temperatures (usually at -2 Celsius for meat), with source loading the most convenient strategy. Its main advantages involve no additional handlings of the perishable contents once the container has been loaded, implying lower risks of damage or spoilage. Additionally, the integrity of a shipment is guaranteed since it is sourced at only one location, locked, and only to be “touched” at customs and the customer’s receiving facility.
The above photo depicts pallets of premium pork ready to be source loaded into a maritime reefer container at a medium-sized meat processing plant in Trochu, Alberta (Sunterra). This plant produces about 4-5 source loaded reefer loads per week bound to Japan, a country that has very high standards for quality. The meat is prepared and cut to the specifications of the customer, inspected, then vacuum sealed, boxed, palletized, and brought to the loading bay. The whole facility is refrigerated, so once slaughtered, the meat is not exposed to a different temperature than chilled. Once vacuum packed, chilled pork has a shelf life of about 50 days if the storage temperature is continuously maintained.
About 17,500 kg of pork can be shipped per reefer container. The reefers are usually floor loaded, which takes more loading time (about two hours), but confer a better weight distribution so that boxes do not move and damage their content during transport. Reefers are usually brought to the source loading facility on a “drop and swap” basis, implying that an empty reefer is brought in, and the driver then takes a full shipment out. From the facility in central Alberta, reefers are trucked directly to the port of Vancouver (2 days of driving). They will reach Japan (Tokyo or Yokohama) in about 21 days, leaving about 30 days of shelf life for the chilled pork to be sold on the Japanese market. Without source loading and the reefer container, such an export opportunity would not exist.