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Where's the Beef? The Logistics of Beef Shipping

June 17, 2022 Kevin Baxter

Beef Shipping

Among the heaviest volume freight in early summer - and certainly no slouch the rest of the year - is beef. With Americans hitting the grills using hamburgers, steaks, beef franks and more, it can make one wonder just how beef gets from the source to  the plate, as in, the logistics of beef shipping. With 27.6 billion pounds consumed in 2020, beef shippers do have a bit of practice under their belt. Historically, the heaviest day of beef consumption in the U.S. has been Memorial Day - see the note about grilling above - and peak demand tends to run from then through the 4th of July holiday. That means beef shippers take up a bit more freight volume than normal up to and during this period. Since summer is hot and beef needs to stay cold, that also means a cold chain of transportation is a necessity. Let's take a closer look at how beef is shipped.

How is beef shipped?

To ensure beef is safely shipped, it must be kept at a constant temperature. So the beef cold chain as it were, includes temperature-controlled freight modes and refrigerated warehouses through every step of the process. And oh by the way, that process includes - in simple terms:

  • The farm - for breeding, raising, feeding and ensuring the health of the cattle
  • Processing and distribution - including slaughter, processing, packaging and staging for transport
  • Retail - as in grocery stores, butcher shops, online retailers, restaurants and more

Mixed into these steps can be companies that use beef as a "raw material" (get it?) in other products, like beef jerky, animal feed, etc. But in the end, the beef - in whichever form - reaches the consumer.

When discussing beef transport in the U.S., truckload jumps to the front of the line - especially for fresh beef. Why? Because it's able to tick two important boxes beef shippers must consider - temperature and delivery windows. Trucks are well equipped to handle the responsibilities of keeping fresh beef fresh, all the way to its destination, as even with a controlled temperature, the clock starts to tick on its freshness as soon as it's processed. Refrigerated intermodal can work, too, but shippers tend to prefer the better time certainty of truckload for fresh beef.

Frozen beef on the other hand, opens delivery windows wide, so that it can be transported around the world as long as it maintains its frozen state. That means truckload, intermodal, container ship and air cargo options are all in play provided they're temperature-controlled. And while we mentioned two boxes to tick, there is a third: packaging. The right packaging provides some added insurance in case of any transport issues, so beef shippers often use gel coolants and/or dry ice to offer extra cooling. That doesn't mean typical cardboard boxes can't work, but they should include added insulation to keep the meat fresh.

As with just about any product, beef doesn't live in a vacuum. Freight market conditions influence the ease with which beef is shipped, and the cost to do so. Additionally, inflation plays a part in raising cattle, as they require feed, which includes ingredients subject to market forces as well. And of course, gas prices factor in every step of the way, too.

Need help with your freight shipping needs, refrigerated or otherwise? Let us know and we'll be happy to assist. Learn more about freight and logistics - and what we do at InTek - in our Learning Center. Or you can start with a few of the links below: 

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