Reefer Madness

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Cars, house paint, fertilizer. Look around you. Pretty much everything was delivered in a shipping container. There are 20 million shipping containers now in the world, carried by 6,000 container vessels, all moving literal tons of stuff back and forth over the ocean. And it all started in 1956 when a trucker by the name of Malcolm McLean had an amazingly good idea. What if there was a container that could come off a ship, full of goods, and attach to a truck or a train? No need to move the goods from one container to the next. Goodbye to all the time and labor spent loading and unloading. McLean believed the shipping container could revolutionize the way goods moved around the world.

Nicola Twilley:
Malcolm McLean became a very, very wealthy man. By 1982, he was actually one of the 400 richest Americans because of course, the shipping container did revolutionize the way goods move.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Nicola Twilley.

Nicola Twilley:
New, deeper ports were built for new, deeper ships carrying more products. A cargo vessel in the late 1960s needed a crew of 50. A container ship, five times the size, needed just 18 people. Meanwhile, on shore, roughly three-quarters of the hundreds of thousands of dockworkers, who were needed to move goods on and off ships, ended up losing their jobs. It only took one guy to operate the crane that lifted these big boxes.

Roman Mars:
McLean’s idea had created an incredibly more efficient global shipping industry, but there was still one major problem.

Nicola Twilley:
Actually, there were a lot of problems. Bananas, grapes, cheese…

Roman Mars:
The shipping container worked well for dry cargo like paper and cans and plastics. But perishable products were transported the same way they had been for decades, as bulk cargo in the hold of specially designed refrigerated ships.

Nicola Twilley:
And in these refrigerated boats, the one giant cargo space could only be kept at one temperature. And the thing is that different products need different temperatures. Bananas need to be at a higher temperature than apples, and apples need to be kept warmer than say, frozen meat. So, most ships were limited to carrying one thing at a time.

Roman Mars:
United Foods’ fleet of banana boats was perhaps the most famous example of these one item ships.

Nicola Twilley:
The result of sending massive amounts of produce in one ship like this was that when a ship arrived in port, it flooded the area with thousands of pounds of a single commodity. So it was bananas for days and days and days, and then the next week, bushels and bushels of apples everywhere. The market was flooded, food was wasted.

Roman Mars:
Plus, while these refrigerated ships were delivering all the produce, the shipping container industry was missing out on a lot of business.

Nicola Twilley:
However, by the 1970s the container industry had started to build refrigerated containers, which it is my great pleasure to tell you, are referred to within the industry as reefers.

Roman Mars:
Dude.

Nicola Twilley:
I know. And with an entirely straight face. But the reefers they had designed weren’t working very well. Food would show up at the destination, rotten or moldy, and no one understood why. The container industry had a reefer problem and they needed help.

Barbara Pratt:
My name is Barbara Pratt.

Roman Mars:
Reefers, meet your master.

Barbara Pratt:
I’m the Director of Reefer Services for Maersk Line today.

Nicola Twilley:
That’s Barbara Pratt, and Maersk is the biggest shipping company in the world. But back in the 1970s, Barbara was just a college kid.

Barbara Pratt:
And so this professor at Cornell knocked on my door and said, “Hey Barbara, would you like to do some research?”

Nicola Twilley:
Barbara was about to graduate from Cornell with a degree in physics. She’d been planning to go to grad school, but she agreed to defer for a year or two to work alongside her professor and a team of researchers on a project for General Foods. Their mission was to understand what was going wrong with all these shipments.

Barbara Pratt:
Basically, the whole industry was blind to what was happening in transit. They would place 30 to 40,000 pounds worth of produce into a container, put it on a ship, and then see whatever happened at destination.

Roman Mars:
It was like, ‘now behind door number one, will the peaches be rotten or under-ripe?’

Barbara Pratt:
If only 50% of the produce ended up in good shape, that’s what would be consumed and the rest would be thrown in the trash.

Nicola Twilley:
Barbara and her team decided the only way to see what was happening to the produce inside the containers was to follow the containers from farm to truck to train to ship.

Roman Mars:
They’d need a lab, but it would have to be a mobile lab, one that can move with the shipments.

Nicola Twilley:
And so of course, Barbara’s research team would build their lab in a shipping container. It’s really the only thing that made sense.

Barbara Pratt:
Whether it was in the various terminals, in the fields, or even onboard the ship, to then connect up to the other refrigerated containers that were moving on the ship to monitor what was going on inside the transit.

Nicola Twilley:
And that’s how, at 22 years old, Barbara began traveling the world, working and sometimes sleeping in a 40-foot shipping container.

Barbara Pratt:
We converted this container to basically a laboratory, a self-sustained laboratory so that we could repeat our science while we were in transit.

Nicola Twilley:
They worked with a company in southern New Jersey that made mobile homes to outfit their shipping container, make it a little cozier.

Barbara Pratt:
And we would have the front section, which had some bunk beds in case we needed to stay overnight.

Nicola Twilley:
There was a microwave, a shower, and of course, a refrigerator. It actually looked pretty cool, with black and white checkered floors and a window. A small bulletproof window. You know, ports are not known for being super safe, but it was fairly pleasant.

Roman Mars:
But at the heart of the mobile research lab was the computer.

Barbara Pratt:
And what’s really funny about it is we had a computer, which was the latest and greatest at the time, but it was about two feet square by three feet square by about eight feet tall. And that basically gave us the computing capability that a laptop has today.

Nicola Twilley:
Attached to the lab computer were 150 sensors connected to all the other adjacent containers by long, gray, salt-resistant wires. These wires were sending back all kinds of information about what was happening in the containers – temperature, humidity levels, airflow, concentrations of different atmospheric gases…

Roman Mars:
Starting in 1978, Barbara, along with a small research crew, went with the mobile research lab to trail produce from its harvest on the farm to its arrival in their destination ports.

Barbara Pratt:
We were in different countries in the Caribbean. We were in Asia. We were on the US West Coast, US East Coast. We were over in Europe.

Roman Mars:
So, remember Barb was only going to do this for a year or two?

Barbara Pratt:
What happened basically, is I got hooked in the industry and I just stayed there.

Roman Mars:
She kind of got hooked… on reefers.

Nicola Twilley:
For the next seven years, Barb traveled back and forth across the globe with the shipping container lab. She got the adventures she wanted, but she didn’t have much time for sightseeing.

Barbara Pratt:
We ran our tests and we were conducting our research and analyzing data as we could during the days.

Nicola Twilley:
When they were on land, out in the fields and orchards, they’d sleep in hotels. But one person would usually stay behind and sleep in the bunk beds in the lab to keep an eye on the computer.

Roman Mars:
When they were aboard the boat, Barbara would pass the time doing some embroidery.

Nicola Twilley:
Safe to say, Barb was the only one embroidering on the cargo ship. She was kind of a rarity, a young 20 something woman on the high seas.

Barbara Pratt:
I found out about 15 years later, that someone senior in the organization had told the people that were around me when I was working, that I had a black belt in karate so that they would know that I could defend myself.

Nicola Twilley:
But you didn’t have any actual martial arts skills?

Barbara Pratt:
No. I did not at all.

Roman Mars:
But Barb had plenty of other skills.

Nicola Twilley:
She and her colleagues were the first to map airflow in a reefer, and the first to figure out how much produce could be stuffed in before air circulation started to suffer.

Barbara Pratt:
With frozen, all you need really need to do is keep it cold. With produce, what you need to do, or with most of the produce, it’s breathing and respiring product. And so what you need to do, in order to preserve its shelf life, is to slow down the breathing and respiration that’s going on.

Nicola Twilley:
Based on their findings, the standard ventilation system of a standard reefer unit was completely redesigned. Air used to enter the container from the top. In the improved design, cooler air entered the container from the bottom.

Barbara Pratt:
And then the air basically got forced up through the cargo, which then allowed it to remove the heat that… which is what the whole focus of the airflow was.

Nicola Twilley:
Their research also influenced the ways that growers would dry, prepare, and pack their products to be shipped. All to ensure that fruits and veggies could last two weeks on the ocean inside of a refrigerated tin can.

Roman Mars:
In short, the work that Barbara Pratt and her rotating cast of colleagues did during their seven years at sea, led to a world where Peruvian asparagus can reliably be found in American grocery stores, and New Zealand kiwi fruit are readily available on British supermarket shelves.

Nicola Twilley:
So you still work in shipping. You’ve stayed in shipping ever since you got sucked in. What happens nowadays if you want to figure out what’s going on inside of a reefer? You don’t have to be on the boat, right?

Barbara Pratt:
Not necessarily. Today the reefer units are all run by microprocessors so we can see the digital recordings of those units internally once they get to their destination.

Roman Mars:
And these high-tech reefers are so reliable and so finely calibrated that they are now taking business away from air cargo, even for extremely fragile products such as fish and flowers.

Barbara Pratt:
And they’re basically affordable today, whereas in the past they were not, because they move via ocean. If they all had to move via air, they would be very expensive for all of us. But we can bring in Italian grapes, we can bring in persimmons, we can bring in other products into this country that are not typically grown here.

Nicola Twilley:
Even bananas are shipped in containers now. Chiquita, which is a descendant of United Fruit, recently sold off the last of its banana-only ships. And now Maersk is beginning to experiment with controlled ripening en route, inside the reefer, rather than in special facilities at distribution centers. All hail the reefer, deliverer of perfectly ripe bananas.

Roman Mars:
The global shipping industry, like it or not, is an undeniable part of modern existence. And of course, it’s rife with its own problems. Yes, products are not as fresh after they’ve been at sea for two weeks. And all this refrigeration is really environmentally inefficient. And it’s forcing small farmers to compete in the cutthroat global economy. Reefers seem to embody everything the local food movement is fighting. And you’d think that it would be Barb versus the local farmers.

Barbara Pratt:
I grew up and actually, am still farming the same family farm. And we grow a variety of different products, mostly fruits and vegetables.

Nicola Twilley:
Barbara is no stranger to the realities of running a small farm today. But she likes that small farmers can have an opportunity to access a global market. Barb is well aware of the value of eating local, but she defends the importance of just eating more fruits and vegetables.

Barbara Pratt:
Yes, it’s important to eat local, but in January and February, there are no local fruits and vegetables that we can eat. What has happened over the years, is that people are eating more fruits and vegetables in general because they have access to more products and higher quality products year-round.

Roman Mars:
It’s thanks, in part, to Barb’s research that we can eat blueberries or tomatoes whenever we feel like. Which Barb argues, will make us eat them more. And it’s all because of reefer. That’s never not going to be funny to me.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Nicola Twilley and Avery Trufleman, with Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle and me, Roman Mars. Our new digital director is Kurt Kohlstedt. Nicola has her own excellent podcast about food and the history and science of food, it’s called ‘Gastropod’. You can get it at gastropod.com. 99% Invisible celebrated our five year anniversary this week, which is really hard to believe. Thank you for listening and telling people about the show. That’s the only marketing we’ve ever had, and supporting us so that we can remain independent and growing from year to year. Your dedication to this program has really meant the world to me.

  1. Team 99pi, great episode as always! I am particularly happy you mentioned the pros and cons of shipping fruits and vegetables on container ships. While it is nice to have strawberries and kiwis year round, at what cost?

    Also, little side story, I remember when I was in the Navy and we had to do replenishment roughly every two weeks, and being in the reefers about 6 decks below the waterline was the best place to be when it was 100 degrees outside! And the engineers would often call down to let us know that the sensors said it was too warm or the humidity level wasn’t correct and we had to close the giant reefer doors.

  2. > As it turns out, a good reefer doesn’t just keep a consistent temperature– it also regulates airflow and controls internal atmosphere. The results of Pratt’s research impacted every aspect of shipping by reefer, from how goods are packed to how cool air is pumped into containers (from below rather than above).

    So why *was* all that food spoiling? And was the solution just pumping from below? (But why would that change anything?) Don’t leave us hanging like that!

    1. All of that information is in my forthcoming book on refrigeration, from which this story was taken! You’ll just have to wait (a year plus, sorry) to find out…

  3. The railroad industry has been calling refrigerated railcars “reefers” for more than 100 years, so this usage is hardly novel. Indeed, I expect it probably predates the drug-related use of the word.

  4. I enjoyed the subject of this program and it was fascinating to hear from Barbara Pratt, one of the early innovators or refrigerated containers. But it was frankly embarrassing to hear the hosts titter like middle-school children and make bad puns about “reefer”. The term has its origins in US rail as slang for a refrigerated rail car – as a quick visit to Merriam-Webster’s website would have informed them. This usage predates the marijuana slang.

    It is worth remarking on maybe once in the episode just to acknowledge the parallel etymology. But to go on and on about it reminded me of two potheads continually laughing about something that stopped being funny hours ago.

    1. Agreed. That, along with the over-enunciation made this a really annoying episode. I understand she is British, and I assume that anyone listening to this particular podcast can understand a british accent. But that, together with the reefer jokes, was too much of a contrast.

    2. meh

      Really? You were “embarrassed”? What, did you share this episode with a girl you were trying to impress who hates puns?

    3. Dan Jacobs

      You know why no one has ever heard someone that practices linguistic and historical pedantry laugh out loud?

      Because they’re probably too busy picking apart even these two sentences.

      Lighten up, folks. Maybe smoke some reefer.

  5. Hannah

    Great episode! I work for a company that regularly uses ‘reefers’ to ship our products and ingredients. I shared this with our shipping team, with a disclaimer about the title.

  6. S L Ganapathi

    There used be ships with central refrigerations systems with insulated containers being supplied cold air from central systems on shore and on board – used extensively on refrigerated cargo routes like Europe/Australia

    This system would be an enormous energy saver

  7. Erin Warholm

    I found the over-enunciation and pronunciation of words to be really distracting here. I don’t think I caught much of the actual information being conveyed due to the really strange inflections. I’d prefer if she just used her normal accent!

  8. Jenna

    Wow, a lot of complaining about a really informative, well done show that also happens to be free… I found the speaker’s voice to be very pleasant.

  9. That’s good to know that you would need to regulate the airflow inside the container as well. I am interested in shipping some items that would need to be kept cool, but I wouldn’t want them to thaw or freeze. If keeping a good airflow would help do that, then it might be worth taking a look into getting someone that could help me do that.

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