When a UK-based dessert manufacturer decided to branch out a bit and start selling delicacies in the Australian market, Adam McKenna at Direct Food Express, a freight forwarder based at Manchester Airport, was there. His logistically challenging task: Keep 19 temperature-sensitive pallets cold during a roughly 10,000-mile journey, arranging all the governmentally required health certificates and Customs clearances in the process. Oh yeah — and the clock’s ticking.
“They had put a huge investment in a new market,” McKenna says. “All the goods had to arrive in perfect condition to get straight into the retail units and onto the shelves. We had to deliver, and we did.”
Getting it right in the high-paced, high-risk arena of shipping food around the world is never easy. Hygiene standards and government oversight make handling food a unique supply-chain undertaking, and the technology required to ship and constantly monitor temperature-sensitive products adds another wrinkle into the process. Finally, handling the standard logistics involved in shipping airfreight must be accomplished on a much tighter schedule.
In the UK, all this is challenging, but it can ultimately be accomplished with a bit of hard work. But airfreight executives in emerging regions currently experiencing a surge in cargo activity are sometimes making up solutions to these unique cold-chain requirements as they go. Industry workers in burgeoning markets must ensure that a proper cold-chain infrastructure is developed in order to bring this exciting — and profitable — aspect of the industry to new areas.
A dearth of technology for the food industry is a growing issue in China, says Yacoob Piperdi, senior vice president of cargo services at Singapore-Changi International Airport. Emerging regions, as well as those that experience hot climates, need to pay special attention to growing their cold-chain abilities.
“The lack of cold-chain logistic facilities in Asia is one major market issue. Unlike pharmaceutical products, where the adoption rate for refer-ULDs is fast-gaining, the food sector is still somewhat lagging behind its pharmaceutical counterpart due to cost consideration. But this will change over time,” says Piperdi, who runs Coolport, a cold-chain facility that opened at the airport in June 2010.
Coolport has experienced significant growth in airfreight volume and has expanded trucking and handling services during its first year. Piperdi says this comes from carriers that are starting to target food and pharmaceutical cargo. Officials are looking to increase Coolport’s capabilities even more. By adding the option of quality checks to goods routed through the development, retailers would gain more time.
“With the rising affluence of consumers and their demand for higher quality perishable products, we see a need to provide more Coolport services around the region to ensure that the food items that are transported via the airports are handled fittingly according to the needs of the customers,” Piperdi says.
In addition to keeping the cold chain intact, when officials handled a large shipment of seasonal Australian mangoes,
workers broke the goods up into smaller volumes. The fruit was then airfreighted to Shanhai, Hong Kong, Kulala Lumpur and Tokyo. Australia is a large origination point for Changi’s food shipments; goods — mostly meat and seafood — also come from Europe and Indonesia into Changi before they are broken up and sent out around the region.
Shipping food — everything from lobsters or exotic cheeses to more ordinary foodstuffs — seems, well, fun. And it’s profitable. That’s why, McKenna says, everybody wants to get in on the action. To help create a standard in the industry, Direct Food Express holds workshops and seminars in order to teach freight-forwarders and other interested parties the key aspects of the cold chain. When dealing with food, knowledge of different cultural practices and the variety of handling restrictions is critical, he adds.
McKenna is also thinking about expansion in other ways and is currently looking to improve his company’s services in India and the Far East. He says improvement in these regions will enable Direct Food Express to offer a truly worldwide supply chain.
“Our business is seeing year-of-year growth, but we still have plenty to do and to achieve,” he says. “But we are focused on reaching our goal, and by understanding our clients’ requirements, we will ensure we get there.”
According to Wally Deveraux, director of sales and marketing for Southwest Airlines Cargo, one of the key issues with today’s cold supply chain is shipment visibility. To address the issue, Southwest officials are busy upgrading their tracking processes.
Deveraux says the carrier is “developing piece-level, plane-side scanning for all commodities being loaded in, or unloaded from, our aircraft.” He expects the new technology to be fully implemented by the middle of next year.
Another bit of technology Southwest recently started accepting is OnAsset Intelligence’s Sentry 400 FlightSafe GPS device — an invaluable tracking device, especially when dealing with the seafood and other perishable shipments Southwest routinely handles.
“[It] not only provides shipment tracking information, but also tracks temperature, which is certainly important to cold-chain food shippers,” Deveraux says.
These enhanced tracking capabilities will help shippers keep an eye on their goods once Southwest expands to new markets. The carrier’s acquisition of AirTran will open up new services and locations, as will the addition of new planes.
“We plan to add the 737-800 series aircraft to our fleet starting in 2012,” he says, “which will also add new markets to our system, as well as provide some longer-haul flights in select markets.”
Southwest moves a variety of meats, herbs, seafood, fruit and vegetables throughout its system. On a daily basis, Baltimore crabs are loaded onto planes and airfreighted to a number of destinations throughout the U.S.
“We ship more seafood than any other type of food,” he says, “and it’s moving all over the county.”
Transporting foodstuffs was one of the things that had a substantial amount of protection from the negative effects of the downturn. For the most part, shippers can’t turn to ocean freight to save money, so their options in adapting the supply chain to economic pressures are limited. McKenna responded to the downturn by simply being “more vigilant” in his work and ensuring that the UK’s recession didn’t creep into his industry.
In the U.S., the tight economy mixed with environmental disasters to form a struggling industry, but Deveraux says he sees a perishables market that is steady and getting stronger.
“Considering the slowly improving economy and the improved conditions in the Gulf of Mexico after the oil spill,” he says, “we anticipate the remainder of the year to be relatively solid for perishable food shipments.”