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Break bulk refers to a type of cargo in small individual containers stored in a group on a cargo ship. These may be items like bags of coffee or rice, or small boxes stacked together in the hold of a ship or on deck. A legal term related to break bulk is “breaking bulk,” used in 19th century common law to describe the act of separating some of the containers from within the break bulk and then selling them. The term is also associated with unlawful conduct on the part of a “bailee,” one responsible for the safekeeping of the property or goods of another. Breaking bulk was punishable as a felony in some instances.
Break-bulk cargo ships have been sailing for hundreds of years. Even with modern storage facilities and equipment like hydraulic hoists and forklifts, problems with breaking bulk continue. This is because of the nature of the cargo. It is usually stored on pallets, which must be first stacked or loaded by hand. As the cargo moves from port to port and different storage facilities, this process is repeated many times.
The easy access to break-bulk cargo leads to the theft of valuable items like electronics, machine parts and computers. Items like liquor, cigarettes, and jewelry are also vulnerable. Ordinarily, the only people with ready access to this kind of cargo are those working on ships or in storage facilities and acting in the role of bailees of the cargo. The incidence of missing goods from break-bulk cargo can cause legal conflicts among shippers, carriers, buyers and insurers.
In an attempt to prevent losses in these types of shipments, the US military began to try and construct secure shipping containers that would prevent theft of cargo. This led to the development of the large intermodal shipping containers used today in marine and railway shipping. Many break-bulk shipments are now transferred back and forth from break bulk to container cargo in order to reduce the amount of handling.
Many older vessels around the world were designed specifically to carry break bulk. A large percentage of these types of cargo ships are still sailing today. It is expected that they someday will fade from use, unable to compete with ships of more modern design using containers that can carry any type of cargo securely. Some merchant carriers in poorer countries do not have the resources to refit their vessels or acquire more sophisticated loading equipment. However, it is believed that these older ships of necessity will remain in use for the foreseeable future.