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How does food get to the grocery store?

September 22, 2022 Kevin Baxter

Grocery Produce

Just as with any type of product, food tends to use multiple freight modes to get to the grocery store, though there are definitely more common methods of transport. Domestically, trucks are the primary carrier of food. They carry about 70% of the food consumed in the U.S., with the next most common method being railway - which can include both intermodal and hopper cars - at 17%. As far as the type of truck, that depends on the size of the load and the variety of grocery store food. Trucks that transport food include:

  • Refrigerated (reefer) trucks - handle goods that require consistent temperatures throughout transit, like dairy, meat, eggs and anything else refrigerated
  • Freezer trucks - while these can also be referred to as reefers for shorthand, freezer trucks are more specialized to maintain even colder temperatures that keep loads frozen, ideal for - you guessed it - frozen foods
  • Tanker trucks - typically for liquids like milk, juice and oil, but they can also handle bulk dry goods like flour
  • Traditional semi-trucks - for dry foods that don't need temperature control like crackers, cereal, canned goods and more

As a not insignificant portion of food we consume in the U.S. doesn't come from within the country, there are still more freight modes at play as well. Since we're thinking globally, ocean freight accounts for more than half of the "food miles" traveled worldwide, about 60%. Since those boats can't make it onto dry ground, that cargo then shifts to trucks or intermodal options to get to their landlocked destinations. You may be asking, "what about planes?" Well, according to the same study, air freight is a distant last behind sea shipping, road and rail, at just .16%. Another study suggests air freight accounts for between 4 and 5% of food transit in the U.S. though. Regardless of how they're transported, fresh meat and produce - along with perishable processed foods - have a ticking clock to get to the grocery store. Produce will simply over-ripen if it takes too long to get to shelves, regardless of how it's stored. And foods like meat, milk and bread among others - once packaged - will inch closer to their sell-by dates. That means speed and reliability are paramount to get grocery products to stores and consumers before they spoil and must be discarded.

How does the grocery supply chain work?

The grocery supply chain works from the ground up, beginning at the food source and ending with a customer walking out of the grocery store double doors, pushing a cart full of products. Step by step, the grocery supply chain includes:

  • Raw goods/agriculture
  • Warehouse
  • Processor/Mill
  • Distributor
  • Retailer
  • Consumer

The grocery supply chain can take place on a more micro level, with local farm to table options skipping some of those processing and distribution steps. On the flip side, there are additional steps for prepared items like baked goods, which may need their ingredients themselves to go through a supply chain before the finished product is made. Within the grocery supply chain, a distributor may be referred to as a wholesale grocer. A wholesale grocer purchases products - pretty much any type that grocery stores sell - directly from manufacturers then distributes them to grocers. Sometimes though, a manufacturer will skip the wholesale/distributor step and get their products directly to the retailer's shelves.

If your company deals in food freight, here at InTek Freight & Logistics, we can help. Just tell us what you need and we'll discuss how our expertise can help your business. Rather do a bit more research first? Visit our Learning Center for videos, articles and eBooks on all things freight and logistics.

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