The Queen of Cool

Most people would not choose to work inside a refrigerated shipping container, much less live in one. Barbara Pratt is different; she spent her twenties doing both, and as a result helped revolutionise the reefer business that today enables food and other perishables to be shipped around the world.

The fruits of reefer tech

Thanks to advances in reefer technology, nearly every fresh commodity can reach any market all year round, no matter what the distance.

  • Blueberries, once transported to global markets only by air, can now arrive in European and US markets from South America by container ship, making them more affordable and widely available.
  • Seasonal produce from North and Central America, including citrus fruit, apples, avocados and asparagus can be found in markets across Middle Eastern and Asian markets.
  • Russians enjoy fresh bananas from Ecuador in the middle of February. Maersk Line’s ice-class vessels carry as much as 29 million bananas every week from Guayaquil, Ecuador to St. Petersburg, Russia.

“We knew so little about refrigerated shipping back then,” says Barbara Pratt, director of refrigerated technical services for Maersk Line in North America, reflecting on her adventure inside a converted reefer container in the name of science.

“A customer would put 20,000 kilos of fresh fruit in a reefer container, send it across the Atlantic for 30 days, and the reasons for its condition upon arrival were largely unknown to us,” says Pratt.

“With the ‘Mobile Research Lab,’ the converted container Sea-Land built, we set out to learn all how to improve the quality of long-distance shipments. And it turned out I spent the better part of seven years living and working in that container,” says Pratt, who today is 58 years old and lives in a house.

Apples to apples

Barbara Pratt is a farm girl. She still works on the family farm she grew up on – 180 acres of apples, peaches, pears, nectarines, even Christmas trees, just an hour north of New York Ci and Maersk Line’s office in nearby Madison, New Jersey.

Barbara Pratt: Maersk Line North America
Barbara Pratt, head of refrigerated technical services, Maersk Line North America.

The Sea-Land team led the way on reefer back then, and there’s no question the R&D that Barbara was doing helped lay the foundation for what we know today about refrigerated transport.

HEAD OF INNOVATION MAERSK LINE REEFER MANAGEMENT HENRIK LINDHARDT

She was a 20-year old student at Cornell University studying physics, biology, chemistry, computer science and maths when she discovered the University’s Vegetable Crops Department. It was the match she had been looking for, an interesting and fulfilling outlet for applying her love of science.

Pratt graduated from Cornell in 1976 with a degree in physics and was accepted into the University of Delaware’s “Post-Harvest Physiology” graduate programme, but turned it down. Her former Cornell professor had offered her a job – a special project for Sea-Land, the container shipping company founded by Malcolm McLean, the inventor of the shipping container. 

Soon after, the ‘Mobile Research Laboratory’ was born, and Pratt never went back to school. Instead, she spent much of the late 1970s and early 1980s inside a container, throwing light on the little-known science of refrigerated transport and enabling the creation of much of the technology and best practices used in the industry today.

Life in a container

The ‘Sea-Land Mobile Research Lab’ was actually a converted 40-foot shipping container, modified by a company specialising in mobile homes to create a totally self-contained research centre equipped with living and office space.

Laboratory at Maersk Line North America
Barbara Pratt spent the better part of seven years in this container ‘Mobile Lab’ just to learn how to improve the quali

And because it was a standard container, it could be loaded onto vessels, trucks and barges – anywhere customers’ cargo could go. At one end of the container was the lab, equipped with a computer and a variety of technical instruments for taking and analysing food and atmosphere samples up to 150 temperature points. At the other end was the living area with two bunk beds, a microwave, refrigerator, shower and a small office space. A diesel generator, fuel and water tanks ensured continuous power and heat.

In a terminal, on a farm or in an orchard, Pratt and her partners took turns sleeping to keep an eye on the computers. Bulletproof glass in the door window was a precaution given the duration of stays in certain places and the expensive equipment inside. In her years in the lab, Pratt studied over 100 different commodities, frozen and fresh, testing and monitoring temperatures, mapping airflow in the container, humidity, respiration rates of fruit and vegetables, fungus growth and more.

“We worked with several customers as well, to solve specific problems. General Foods wanted to know why cocoa and coffee beans from the Dominican Republic were occasionally arriving in the US mouldy. We did some tests, tweaked the temperature and ventilation and eventually patented a new container design,” recalls Pratt.

In the 1977 advertisement

Pratt is quick to point out that she “was not the only one doing this research back then,” though her colleagues are just as quick to praise her work.

“She has been in this business longer than most people, including everyone on our team,” says Henrik Lindhardt, head of innovation in Maersk Line’s reefer management team.

Lindhardt produced the original 1977 ‘Sea-Land Mobile Research Laboratory’ advertising brochure from his desk, with a picture of Barbara in a white lab coat working in the container lab:

“The Sea-Land team led the way on reefer back then, and there’s no question the R&D she was doing helped lay the foundation for what we know today about refrigerated transport. 

According to Lindhardt, it was Pratt’s findings from her time in the lab that led to a lot of changes in reefer container design and packing methods customised for the particular ventilation, air flow and temperature needs of a variety of fresh produce.

From the lab to technical services

Today, Pratt heads Maersk Line’s refrigerated technical services team in North America, Maersk Line’s and the world’s largest import/export region for fresh produce.

If a container malfunctions or cargo is spoiled and no one knows why, it’s Barbara and her team who receive the call to unravel the mess.  They are the fixers, providing real-time support to Maersk Line operations, sales and customer service.

She calls her transition from the lab to technical services a natural progression.

“Today, I prefer solving the problems, working on the logistics and serving the bigger picture – the customers and the business,” she says.

It was Barbara’s research and development of strict standard operating procedures that enabled Maersk Line to begin accepting shipments of blood plasma. Volumes are small, but very profitable.

“I don’t see myself retiring. I think with global population growth, the need for a year-round safe and transparent food supply will only increase,” she says.