Port's Cold Chain Summit Covers N.C. Prestige, Global Conflict, Cold Supply Chain

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Apr 19, 2024
A panel of speakers discussed the cold supply chain at the North Carolina State Ports Authority Cold Chain Summit in downtown Wilmington's Hotel Ballast on Thursday. (Photo by Audrey Elsberry)
A sea of economic development, cold storage and ports professionals gathered in Wilmington for the seventh annual North Carolina State Ports Authority Cold Chain Summit on Thursday.

Key issues discussed throughout the three panels and several speakers’ presentations were the state’s growth in population and economic activity and the importance of building cold supply chain infrastructure. The cold chain refers to the transportation and storage of products such as fresh produce and frozen goods that must maintain a certain cold temperature throughout the supply chain process.

Each industry topic was broached under a collective awareness of the geopolitical and climate crises squeezing the supply chain industry.

Brian Clark, executive director of N.C. Ports, kicked off the summit by addressing the audience about the state of both the Port of Wilmington and the Port of Morehead City. His team is currently executing a five-year plan, he said, which is in its third year.

“By 2026, we'll grow our container volume by 40%,” Clark said. “We will exceed 4.5 million tons of general cargo between both facilities.”

Cold-treated imports have become more popular over the past 10 years, said Tim Cunningham, national operations manager for treatments at the USDA. Cold treatment refers to lowering the temperature of produce to kill pests and germs without chemicals. In the 2014 fiscal year, about 7,500 cold-treated containers entered U.S. ports. In 2023, there were over 40,000, he said. The 2024 count is on track to be slightly less.

Cold storage and treatment are of increasing importance in the food and grocery market because shoppers expect to be able to buy their favorite fruits and vegetables year-round, said Tony Fernandez, Southeast director for J&K Fresh East, an import logistics firm.

Fernandez said he is excited to see heightened attention to cold treatment and storage at the Port of Wilmington because that is the first step to becoming a trusted destination for fruit imports. The “gold standard” in the industry is a facility in Philadelphia, he said, because it has facilities, institutional knowledge and contingency plans if the cold treatment is ineffective.

Dealing with cargo coming into the port is familiar territory, but speculating whether the cargo coming from the Far East will make it to N.C.’s coast is a different story. Two major pathways for cargo ships have been strained in recent months due to conflict in the Middle East and climate change in Central America.

The Panama Canal’s water levels are far lower than their usual levels due to a drought in the area partly due to El Niño and climate change. The critical pathway is expected to have a 35% reduction in crossing volumes, Fernandez said. The environmental slowdowns are exacerbated by increasing demand in the market, he added.

Freight passing through the Suez Canal, which separates Africa from the Middle East in Egypt, was down 45% in February due to attacks from the Houthi movement, a group primarily located in Yemen in support of Palestinians in Gaza.

These supply chain disruptions are what industry officials call “black swan events.”

“You just can’t predict them,” said Bill Duggan, Eskesen Advisory’s North American advisor. “(Disruption in the Suez Canal has) really soaked up all the available ships that are out there in the marketplace today.”

As the area is recognized by large economic development projects in different industries, Clark touted proximity to the port as a critical component of winning those deals, a sentiment echoed by venture capitalists and developers throughout the summit.

The state’s recognition as a good place for business, CNBC’s number one state for business two years running in fact, can be boiled down to population, production and location, said Grant Daly, cargo giant Maersk’s vice president of cold chain and refrigerated sales for North America.

Wilmington was recently named the fastest-growing city in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — population. The Port of Wilmington was recently named the most productive port in North America by the Container Port Performance Index — production. Due to the geography of the Port of Wilmington, available development space for warehouse and cold storage projects is available within 10 miles of the port, making it easily accessible for importers — location.

“That resonates really well with tenants because it gives them optionality,” said Mike Massardo of Edgewater Ventures. “So, we love Wilmington from that perspective.”
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