More vegetarians – more refrigerated transport?

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Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: TU Berlin, Shutterstock

People are eating more consciously – this has an impact on food logistics. Julia Kleineidam, research assistant in the Logistics Department headed by Professor Frank Straube at the Technical University of Berlin, reports in an interview on the challenges and perspectives she sees for the industry.

In Antwerp, Europe’s second-largest port after Rotterdam, the number of reefer containers handled in 2021 rose by 2.7 per cent compared to the previous year – and for the second year in a row, the one million TEU mark in operational reefer containers was exceeded. The experts of the Perishables Expertise Group explain this development with food trends such as veganism: “Our eating habits have a positive effect on the numbers of refrigerated transports. Food boxes with fresh products are becoming more and more popular. Many people are consciously opting for a plant-based diet and are looking for a wider range of fruit, vegetables and meat substitutes. And preferably all year round.”

Ms Kleineidam, can you confirm this evaluationlooking at your research?
We also see that the number of refrigerated transports is increasing overall. Just like the tendency to eat a more plant-based diet – and I do think there is a correlation. But I wouldn’t want to leave out other aspects either. Because we generally see a greater use of technology and, as a result, greater diversification. For example, if I can transport some foods even better or keep them longer than before by using certain temperature zones, then I will be more likely to use refrigerated transport. The more options are available, the more will be used.
How flexible must food logistics be?

Food simply has certain characteristics that place demands on logistics in terms of flexibility. And logistics needs appropriate structures. We see a lot of flexibility, especially in the operational area – not least because technologies are advancing: In the past, it was common practice to put things in the warehouse first and take them out again first – “first in, first out”. Now there are solutions that can record the degree of ripeness of certain foods, and then I can give them their own best-before date. For logistics, this means that preference should be given to taking out those goods that will expire first – in other words, “first expired, first out”. I have to incorporate this dynamic into my process. If the customers’ requirements change, logistics must react to this.

»The trend towards greater transparency is a strong driver for change in food logistics transport chains.«

Julia Kleineidam, Research Associate, Logistics Department, Technische Universität Berlin

In 2015, 85,000 people in Germany said they ate vegan. In 2021, there were already 1.41 million, plus another 7.5 million vegetarians. What impact does that have?
We hear from the companies we talk to about such topics that, from the logistics service provider’s perspective, it’s old wine in new bottles. Even if the products change, they do not place completely different demands on transport. Meat substitutes also have to be refrigerated. But the quantities are definitely increasing. From research, we observe that the trend towards greater transparency is an even stronger driver for changes in the transport chains.
That customers pay more attention to where their food comes from and want more regional products?
Yes, exactly. This is a logistics issue because the transport chains have to be restructured. Many actors are involved in the production of food and its transport and logistics, including farms, transport companies and trading companies. They all need to know where the apple or raspberry comes from in order to pass on this information in the logistics chain. Digital solutions are needed for this.
Are there any other challenges you see for the European and German markets?
For ten or fifteen years, people have been saying that online food retailing will go through the roof. Many other countries are already going strong – in Germany, almost nothing happened. Only since the Corona pandemic there has been a noticeable development: Not only traditional retailers like Rewe or Edeka now deliver to the front-door; last-mile delivery service providers like Gorillas or Flink are also sprouting up. We are seeing a massive upheaval in the market. I would be careful about saying that in a few years we will only order our groceries online. But from what we see and from my experience with the grocery market, I think we will use multiple channels to get our groceries. This poses new challenges for logistics. It starts with the question of where do I take the pallet – to the supermarket or to a warehouse? If it’s not the very direct delivery within ten minutes, but a classic online order, you can also install the warehouse at the boundaries of the city and send e-cars into the city center from there. The packaging and structuring of the articles are also in question: if the package no longer has to encourage me to reach for it on the shelf, it is less important what it looks like. Logistics service providers should not commit to one channel, but become diverse in order to keep up with these trends.
How can research support?

In the long term, autonomous driving could greatly change transport from the warehouse to the point of sale or delivery to the customer. Then perhaps many more people will have their shopping delivered to their homes. We are investigating this here in Berlin in the large BeIntelli research project. I see a time horizon of at least ten years, and it will be exciting to see which concepts can actually be implemented.


Julia Kleineidam is a research assistant in the Logistics Department at the Technical University of Berlin, headed by Professor Frank Straube. She focuses on global food trade and works, among other things, on a project that deals with food logistics chains in developing countries, specifically using Ethiopia as an example. “We are investigating how to reduce food waste and at the same time achieve positive employment effects. In the background, we are looking at ways in which a country like Ethiopia, which has a relatively large potential to produce food, can participate more in international trade and thus also promote its own development.”
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