Ice, Ice, Baby: A history of refrigerated shipping, where it started, and where it is going


By Lauren Quinn Badell

Picture a hot summer day on a coast somewhere in the UK.  Maybe sitting outside in the open air, an anonymous sea breeze, while welcome and lovely, barely brings relief from the heat.  The table is set for a late lunch, glasses full of ice dripping condensation like the beads of sweat beginning to form around the hairlines of the guests, who snack on appetizers of lamb and goat cheese and crostini topped with tomato and avocado.  Delightful, and not that far beyond the reaches of imagination.

In 2016, this scene wouldn’t be uncommon, but imagine in 1868, when the closest avocado orchard is an ocean’s length away, ice is months out of season and the demand for meat in the United Kingdom far exceeds the available supply.

Enter the refrigerated shipping container.

While there had been several previous and successful attempts to ship frozen food products across wide stretches of ocean before the 1880s, both from the United States and Argentina, the introduction of frozen meat in 1880—and the problems of overzealous copulation in the population of sheep—in Australia and New Zealand generated the ideal environment for innovation and the most well-documented trade as it was initially the most extensive.   

In 1869, ship workers in Indiola, Texas, just north of Corpus Christi, first used what became known as reefers to ship beef to hospitals in New Orleans, a relatively short trip along the Gulf of Mexico. These reefers, a shortened term for refrigerator, were cargo ship with the lower hull filled with ice surrounding the cargo and a fan to maintain constant air circulation. This was not only a costly process, but the technology couldn’t even ensure that the ice would remain frozen for the entire voyage, resulting in huge economic losses. The success of the system was entirely dependent on external circumstances, such as the distance of the voyage, the climate and how well insulated the container could be.

A few years after reefers made their debut in the Gulf, mutton producers in Argentina pushed the limits of just how far you could ship meat on ice by successfully transporting it across the Atlantic Ocean to France.

In the late 1870s, several more innovations advanced the technology, including the use of electricity, ammonia and carbon dioxide compression and the steam-powered Bell-Coleman refrigeration system. Even though spoilage continued to occur, and still does to this day, these advancements in technology meant that more products could be shipped with more confidence to more places around the world than ever before.

We’ve come a long way since packing frozen meat with ice and sawdust, and leaders in the industry continue to improve the process.

Today’s reefers are equipped with some of the most innovative refrigeration technology that exists. Controlled Atmosphere (CA) Transportation allows an avocado picked in Mexico just prior to ripening to take up to a 35 day voyage, including the crossing of an ocean and the subsequent land travel, to the United Kingdom without turning into brown mush. Some of the leading shipping companies, Hamburg Sud, Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd, have developed the ability to use the natural respiration of fruits and vegetables to effectively slow down the ripening process of other fruits and vegetables to provide an optimum atmosphere for transportation, effectively placing them into hibernation for the voyage. In other cases, the container is injected with a gas mixture that allows the ship to maintain the temperature and humidity inside the containers within half a degree and to a temperature as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Ship designers have found ways to build ships, as in the case of the Reefer RoRo, that decrease the amount of time it takes to load them, which cuts down on the loss of cold.

In 2009, the M/V Auriga Leader became the first cargo ship partially powered by the sun, with 328 solar panels generating about ten percent of the ship’s total energy.  While this technology has not yet been implemented in current day reefers, the potential for advancement is clear.

So, the next time you cut into that perfectly ripe avocado or sit by the beach with a cold beverage on ice, take a moment to think about everything it took to get to your hands, the vast ocean that it had to cross, the technology born out of necessity that went into refrigeration, not only in ships but in your own household and the potential for more food getting to more people in a way that is continually more efficient for the producer, the transporter, the consumer and the environment.