DC Velocity – Thought for Food: Interview with Greg Tuthill

Sep 13, 2023


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 34 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they face uncertain access to adequate food. That includes some 9 million children.

Worldwide, food insecurity is an even bigger problem. The World Food Programme estimates that more than 345 million people face high levels of food insecurity in 2023—which is more than double the number in 2020. Severe droughts, the effects of global warming, and geopolitical factors like the blocking of Ukrainian grain exports have all contributed to this international humanitarian crisis.

At the same time, our appetite for variety means that food often travels thousands of miles to reach our dinner tables. Oranges, bananas, coffee, and other produce grown in Central and South America must be transported to end markets in North America. On the export side, U.S. grain, fruit, and vegetables are shipped around the world.

However, as Greg Tuthill can confirm, about a quarter of our food is lost in transit due to improper handling and shipping delays—food that if properly transported could help alleviate much of the insecurity the world currently faces.

Tuthill’s career in the industry has spanned more than 30 years. He is currently chief commercial officer at SeaCube Containers, a company with $4 billion of assets under management. SeaCube has a total fleet of 1.5 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), and its primary services include refrigerated and dry container leasing and financing. He previously was senior vice president and chief operating officer for CMA-CGM, served as head of operations at APL, and held several executive positions at NYK Line.

Tuthill, who served in the U.S. Navy Reserve as a commissioned officer, holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the State University Maritime College at Fort Schuyler, New York, and a master’s degree in financial economics from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

He was a recent guest on DC Velocity’s “Logistics Matters” podcast, where he spoke with Group Editorial Director David Maloney.

Q: It is estimated that 1.3 billion tons of food are lost or wasted annually worldwide, yet there are food shortages in many parts of the world. How serious is the problem, and how much does food waste contribute to food shortages?

A: It’s pretty serious. And I say that only because we do a lot of research on food waste mitigation, because it’s tied into our products and services. If you look across the globe, in any given year relative to the total food source, there’s about a 30% food waste ratio. As you said, that’s about 1.3 billion tons of food that gets wasted every year. So, it is pretty significant.

Q: How much of that food waste is due to spoilage in transit?

A: About 25% to 30% of that 1.3 billion tons is wasted during transport or the transfer of food sources to the final destination.

Q: Are there certain types of foods that are particularly vulnerable to being lost during transit?

A: Typically, the most sensitive cargo commodities are most subject to spoilage. What I mean by that is not necessarily items requiring frozen-food transport, but those requiring mostly chilled handling with controlled atmospheric-type cargo conditions. Some of the commodities that are prone to spoilage include melons, berries, strawberries, any lettuce-type product, including kale, avocados, and things like that. All of these items are highly sensitive to cargo conditions during transport.

Q: What happens to food that’s spoiled during shipping? Does it all have to be thrown away or can it be reused in some way?

A: Unfortunately, a lot of it goes into landfills, which is the worst part of the story here. However, there’s a heightened awareness, including more development through the G20 discussions about food-waste mitigation solutions. The G20 countries are trying to develop solutions where there could be some reuse, recycling, and even composting, which would be better than sending it to a landfill. Dumping the food in landfills does have some other implications, such as producing methane gas, so it also isn’t an environmentally friendly way to destroy food from a waste-mitigation standpoint.

Q: What are some of the main reasons for spoilage during transit? Are we trying to ship food too far? Is it due to improper handling or shipping delays?

A: There are a few primary causes for food destination failure outcomes, including improper loading, machine failure, and incorrect cargo condition management, monitoring, or adjustments. Another frequent cause is that the food was not in a proper state—perhaps it was already starting to decay—before it was even loaded. Those are just a few of the many reasons for food spoilage.

Q: What can food shippers do to safeguard their cargo during transit?

A: A big part of that is the use of monitoring technologies for food transport, specifically transport via refrigerated containers. These include tools designed for visibility and remote management of the cargo condition, atmosphere, and environment. We’ve also seen big advancements in early warning diagnostics, whether it’s warning of potential machinery failures before they actually occur or alerting shippers to, say, incorrect temperature or humidity settings. All of that can be done remotely now and has proved effective in mitigating bad outcomes.

Controlled atmosphere is another advancement that has been around for a while, and the technology has certainly progressed over the years. Controlling the atmosphere inside a container when you’re moving perishable or refrigerated commodities includes adjusting the oxygen and CO2 and even injecting nitrogen into the cargo space to slow down the ripening process. That certainly helps preserve perishable commodities during long journeys.

Q: What sort of return on investment can someone expect from these technologies?

A: The payback period for these types of applications is very, very short compared to the potential claims for cargo damage, which could run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, any shipper that starts to invest in the technology is seeing some very, very significant returns and experiencing very short paybacks.

Q: If the payback is so quick, why aren’t more people adopting these kinds of technologies?

A: Well, I would say that they are, as the adoption rate has accelerated. I think one particular challenge has been that the fleet of refrigerated containers totals almost 4 million TEUs, so that’s a lot of equipment to retrofit. Implementing new technology in an existing container does take some time because you have to take the container out of circulation, have the equipment installed, have it tested, and then put the container back into the field.

On the bright side, I think we’ll see the use of these technologies accelerate, only because almost all new production containers come equipped with some of this technology.

Q: Are most of the food supply chains equipped to handle these kinds of technologies and newer types of containers?

A: Yes, almost all of the machinery used today is [compatible with this technology]. And the data feeds are becoming more standardized. There are also some initiatives underway to promote cooperation across different platform providers and device application providers, as well as to make more use of open technology.

I think we’re seeing some pretty good progress so far in terms of what this new technology is doing to help us with food waste mitigation.

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