The shipper plans to launch the service within the year. If successful, it may expand operations to bring European agricultural goods to North America, then North American ones to Japan.
Nippon Yusen decided last October to consolidate its container operations with those of fellow shippers Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha. Business was struggling amid low freight rates, owing to a glut of ships and soft demand for transport. Fresh goods fetch high shipping rates due to the specialized equipment involved, and exporting more of them would bring steady income for the joint venture the shippers will establish in July.
Controlled-atmosphere, or CA, containers will keep goods fresh throughout the roughly 50-day voyage. The containers regulate internal temperature as well as nitrogen and oxygen levels, suppressing respiration in produce to keep it from spoiling. Nippon Yusen has used CA containers before for trips of about two weeks to Southeast Asia, but not yet to Europe.
The shipper recently sent its first trial batch of Japanese mandarins to Europe on a request from Tokushima Prefecture. The containers’ temperature and humidity were set to suit the fruit, and most of the batch arrived fit to be sold. The mandarins have been brought to Europe by air for several years, but probably will switch to ocean shipping starting with this November’s crop.
The company is also weighing shipping longer-lasting agricultural products such as apples and Japanese sweet potatoes in CA containers.
Nippon Yusen plans to negotiate freight rates with shippers based on cargo volumes, with CA containers likely to cost five to 10 times as much as general ones. Last year, shipping a general-cargo container from Asia to Europe cost an average of 70,000 yen ($619 at current rates), so CA containers would cost 350,000 yen to 700,000 yen for the same voyage — steeper, but still around a tenth the price of air freight.
In November, the shipper spent several hundred million yen for about 600 additional CA containers, bringing its total to roughly 2,000 units. Those containers have so far mainly been used to import foreign-grown goods like avocados and bananas to Japan. But Japanese exports of fresh goods have been few, and many ships have been sent back with empty holds.
Mitsui O.S.K. has also partnered with the Okinawa Prefecture-based Ryukyu Kaiun Kaisha, or RKK Line, to ship Okinawa-grown goods in CA containers. RKK would ferry such goods as sweet purple potatoes and bitter melons to Kaohsiung in Taiwan, then Mitsui O.S.K. would bring them from Kaohsiung to Hong Kong. The first ship of this venture left Okinawa’s capital of Naha Friday, and is scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong Tuesday. The service will expand to other areas in fiscal 2017.