Cold storage: Vital part of food chain tested by pandemic


Concerns are growing over the strength of the food supply chain amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In normal times, the global network of producers and distributors responsible for moving food around the world functions smoothly.

Obviously, these aren’t normal times. The unprecedented turn-of-events caused by coronavirus are challenging the resiliency of the food supply chain.

Will cracks emerge?

Every rung in the supply chain matters. One critical piece is cold storage warehouses.

Perishable items, such as fruits, vegetables, chicken, beef, and pork, must be refrigerated or else spoil.

Cool Port Oakland, California

Cool Port Oakland, California

Using satellite radar imagery, we’re monitoring activity at key cold storage warehouses.

Specifically, we can determine the amount of man-made objects in an area, e.g., the number of trucks and shipping containers. More of these objects indicates more activity at the port.

One location is the Port of Oakland, the US’s largest exporter of refrigerated cargo containers, and a major conduit for US exports of beef and pork to Asia.

Perishable items from California’s Central Valley and Midwest farms arrive in Oakland before being loaded onto ships that make the trans-Pacific journey.

Cool Port Oakland, located inside the port complex, opened in 2018. It features a 280,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse.

There is a direct rail connection and 90 trucking docks, allowing the facility to handle up to 1 million tons of product each year.

Cool Port Oakland, California

Cool Port Oakland, California

After arriving in Oakland, perishable goods are transferred to 40-foot refrigerated containers, visible in the photos shown above.

These containers carry fruits, vegetables, and meat to Asia, and then return to US ports carrying Asian exports.

This cycle was disrupted in early 2020, when China’s exports ground to a halt after factories closed to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

With fewer ships leaving China’s ports, containers were stranded in Asia, causing a shortage in the US.

A downturn is visible in Figure 1 below, which plots activity at Cool Port Oakland.

We created an index where a score above 1 indicates more activity than on average during this time (September 2018 – present). A score less than 1 indicates less activity than on average.

As you can see, the black trend line since January 2020 slopes downward, indicating less activity.

Figure 1

Figure 1

In addition to container shortage, there was also less demand from overseas markets, especially China.

Simply put, China’s meat consumption declined.

For US meat producers, the timing was awful. A thaw in US-China trade tensions in late 2019 raised expectations that 2020 would be a banner year.

A turnaround began in October, when more pork was sent from the US to China than all of 2018, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

The red trend line shown in Figure 2, covering September – December 2019, captures the uptick in activity.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Shipping containers have begun circulating again after the reopening of China’s factories. That’s resolving a shortage on the US side, while export demand is picking up.

Yet uncertainties remain, especially with respect to supply. Meatpackers remain vulnerable to COVID-19 infections given their close working conditions.

Even with additional precautions, coronavirus outbreaks remain a serious challenge for meat-processing plants.

The same health issues apply to truck drivers who deliver and pick up goods, and those who work at cold storage facilities.

Some of the ways in which coronavirus has upended people’s daily lives also impacts the cold supply chain.

With people dining out less, food has been diverted from restaurants into cold storage.

Online grocery shopping has become more popular. If that lasts, the need for industrial cold storage space is expected to increase.

You can view this blog and other material on our COVID-19 Dashboard, which is available to the public, to continue monitoring local, regional and global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bookmark the Dashboard. Check back to see how trends are evolving.

Ursa is continuously monitoring vital locations around the world using satellite imagery to provide a deeper understanding of the impacts of COVID-19.

If there’s somewhere you’d like us to take a look, please let us know.




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