Brazil is the world's leading chicken exporter, with 3.918 million metric tons of chicken meat exported in 2012 out of a worldwide figure of 10.3 million metric tons. The country moved ahead of the U.S., which exported some 3.2 million metric tons last year, to take pole position back in 2003. It is the phenomenal success of reefer-focused ports, such as Itajai and Santa Catarina, which helps the South American country remain there.

More than one-third of all Brazil's chicken exports pass through the Itajai Port Complex (IPC), and that is despite fierce competition from Paranagua, Rio Grande and new entrant Santa Catarina's Porto Itapoa. Although it may have lost some ground to Itapoa, the southern port of Itajai can still proudly proclaim it is the "chicken export capital of the world."  

It is through the two key container terminals of APMoeller Itajai and Portonave, and to a much lesser extent through the small breakbulk terminal of Braskarne, that the IPC exported 1.399 million metric tons of chicken (equivalent to around 120,000 TEU*) during 2012, an increase of 15 percent of exported chicken in 2011. The value of those exports also increased, from US$2.5 million to US$2.873 million. 

The chicken from Itajai is exported to all the major markets around the world, with the Middle East -- particularly Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates -- and the Far East, namely Japan, China and Hong Kong being the primary destinations.

All the major liner shipping companies operate direct services to key ports in these regions, and MSC Line and Maersk Line have a share in the operations of Itajai's two container terminals, Portonave and APM Itajai, respectively. 

Brasil Foods, now the world's largest chicken exporter, has its headquarters in Itajai, and other brands are also strong in the state of Santa Catarina.

With port terminal Portonave, located on the left bank of the River Itajai Acu, it posted chicken throughput of 56,800 TEU during the first seven months of this year, which is an increase of nearly 20 percent over the same period of 2012. The importance of chicken to Itajai and the southern state of Santa Catarina seems to be growing apace.

How dominance was achieved

So how can such a small town -- Itajai has a population of only 200,000 -- in one of Brazil's smallest states, have a port that rules the world in terms of poultry exports?

There are various reasons for this, but the key strengths are the proliferation of chicken producers in Santa Catarina and the neighboring states of Parana and Rio Grande do Sul, along with the concentration of nine large reefer warehouse facilities in the city, which offer a huge storage capacity. Two are on the quayside while the rest are on the outskirts of town near the two main highways, the nationwide BR 101 and the statewide BR 470.

"The Itajai Port Complex does not just have a good reefer infrastructure, it has a fantastic infrastructure," says Robert Grantham, a shipping consultant based in Navegantes. "The total storage capacity in the port complex is truly amazing.

"These are the reasons for its growth and success, as well as the fact that there is a direct line, by road, to the main producing regions in the interior of Santa Catarina."

Grantham should know, as he was the commercial director at the Itajai Port Authority from 2009 to 2012.

Back in 2009, when Grantham first took up his post, the port boasted 6,350 reefer plugs, and by the time he left, this had risen to 8,460. Back then, these plugs were distributed around 12 different reefer warehouses, and overall static capacity was 160,000 metric tons.

Future growth

Now, Itajai still has those same reefer warehouses, but in addition, it also has Iceport, a 16,000-metric-ton static capacity facility that forms part of Portonave, and the reefer plug count is up to 9,600. Moreover, Portonave is promising to add an additional 1,500 reefer plugs next year, which will see Itajai break through the 10,000 barrier.

The challenge of championing the cause of Itajai and its chicken export prowess has passed to Heder Cassiano Moritz, the technical director for the Itajai Port Authority.

He comments: "The reefer segment is very important for the Itajai Port Complex, and that is especially the case when it comes to chicken exports.

"But we know we must not sit on our laurels, as we have some serious competition from Porto Itapoa just down the road."

Jose Humberto Cortes, the president of Brasfrigo, the biggest reefer facility in Itajai with 42,000-metric-ton static capacity, said: "We are rightly proud of our role as chicken export capital of the world and have no intention of relinquishing it."

Focus for producers

All the major chicken producers export through Itajai, including Brasil Foods, Seara Alimentos, JBS Frangosul and Aurora.

Since the opening of Iceport in January 2009, Portonave has become the major force in Itajai in terms of chicken exports. Covering 50,000 m2 and with a static capacity of 18,000 metric tons and capacity to handle up to 100,000 metric tons of reefer cargo per annum, Iceport has given Portonave and the IPC a major fillip.

Juliano Perin, commercial manager for Portonave, says: "We are doing so well that we are about to expand into a new area and to double our reefer plugs from 1,500 to 3,000 over the next year. The major port destinations for us are Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rotterdam, St. Petersburg and Jeddah. We have five sailings per week for the Far East, with three of them direct calls."

In 2012, Portonave handled nearly 64,000 TEU of chicken, which was nearly 30 percent more than in 2011.

Much of the chicken is trucked to Portonave and/or Iceport from chicken farms in and near cities such as Chapeco and Concordia in the interior of Santa Catarina, or from the south of Parana and the north of Rio Grande. However, Itajai and Navegantes do not have the chicken export market entirely to themselves.

Export competition

Paranagua, which serves the neighboring state of Parana, moved about 600,000 metric tons (50,000 TEU) of chicken during the first six months of 2013, and TCP, the box terminal for the port city, moved 90,000 TEU of chicken in 2012 (down from 102,800 TEU in 2011). TCP displays its commitment to reefer exports with 2,812 reefer plugs.

Of course, there is the new Porto Itapoa. There, the bigger box ships (up to 9,000 TEU capacity) of Hamburg Sud have been calling regularly at the deepwater berths, and Porto Itapoa is slowly increasing its market share of chicken exports, at the expense of Itajai and Paranagua.

For the port of Itajai, it is vitally important to complete the widening of its turning basin to nearly 400 feet to allow larger, longer vessels (up to 334 feet) to call at the complex.

Walter Joos, who heads up APM Terminals' operations for much of Latin America, and who was the CEO at APM Itajai for several years, says that the widening must come sooner rather than later if Itajai is to continue its ascendancy with reefer cargo.

He comments: "The growth of Porto Itapoa is a worry for Itajai, but I think the cargo will return once the new turning basin is built. That will allow bigger vessels in, and we hear that approval will be given before the end of this year, and then it will take a year and a half or so to build. But the clock is ticking and any further delays might mean the cargo doesn't return to Itajai."