How to fly fresh produce 

What are freight forwarders’ priorities for shipping seasonal fruit and vegetables? How do you ensure freshness is locked in from harvest, through transit, and to arrival on supermarket shelves? We speak to Able Freight and CFI, two forwarders on the US West Coast, about their strong asparagus harvest, how they maintain their cold chain, and what they look for in an air cargo partner…

Asparagus moved in huge volumes this season. Can you give us some background? What other produce do you move?

Able Freight: Asparagus is seasonal – there’s a short window into Europe and the demand is strong from February to spring, especially in Spain and Switzerland. 

Throughout the year, we consolidate produce for lots of supermarkets, hotels and importers overseas – everything from asparagus, lettuce, mangoes, carrots, corn, whatever you see on supermarket shelves. Produce is our core business. We move cherries from May to August, strawberries year-round, and stone fruits – such as peaches, plums and nectarines – from mid-April to October. 

CFI: At the start of the year, we focus on how we’ll ship asparagus overseas. It’s grown in northern Mexico close to the US border, so LAX is an ideal airport. Traditionally, we had a strong first-quarter presence into the UK, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Germany. 

Previous lockdowns throughout the UK and EU didn’t stop us from having a strong season. Although the wholesale side of the business – which supplies cafeterias and high-end restaurants – was hurt, the supermarket side was solid, because a lot of people ate at home. There was less lift because of Covid-19, but, despite that, supply and demand were positive, and the market took care of itself. 

What considerations do you make when flying produce during the harvest?

Able Freight: Most of the items we ship must fly, with the exception of hardier items, such as lettuce, which go by sea. In general, we move items by air at the start and end of the season, because that’s when our products aren’t as strong – four weeks by sea just won’t work. 

CFI: I look at the perishables season as if it were pieces of a puzzle to make right decisions. Was it cold at the right time in November and December for a January and February harvest? What’s happening in terms of labour and air space in Spain and Peru, crop competitors to the EU, Asia and the UK? 

So many things must align for a strong season: is the crop planted correctly, is it raining and dry at the right time, are the truckers going to be there in time? A lot of it depends on the weather, so once that’s in place, everything else can fall into place too. 

What materials and tech keep produce cool?

Able Freight: Cold chain is our primary focus, and we ensure this is intact throughout the supply chain. There are several areas that we can’t control. For instance, we have to deliver the products to the airline four hours before departure, during which time they’re susceptible to temperature abuse. If the temperature outside is 30 degrees, the tarmac will be 40, so we ensure the product is pre-cooled, refrigerated, thoroughly wrapped and insulated, then delivered to the airport in cool trucks. 

CFI: The number one thing we use is that old school sense of urgency. Once the product is harvested, it’s never going to get fresher. Our steps are rooted in maintaining the cold chain and reducing flare-ups in temperature. Any time a product gets warmer and then colder, its shelf-life is depleted. 

We have great coolers, but our approach to cold chain is really a layered one. Once the product is harvested, it comes in quickly and is temperature-checked through the front-end and given an “overpack concept,” a combination of insulation, gel packs and dry ice. But it’s about speed – routing as quickly as possible, at the best temperatures, and not being held up by customs or connections through weather or staffing issues. 

What do you look for in a cold chain air cargo partner?

Able Freight: The most important thing is reliability – no matter what the cost, communication is non-negotiable. If there’s an issue, we need to know about it right away. We want to work collaboratively, so we can solve problems together. The communication and follow-up that IAG Cargo offers is excellent. I don’t think I can remember a time when the responses haven’t been instantaneous. 

CFI: First and foremost, we’re looking for strength of network. Do they have more direct flights out of key markets than not? Connection options that are smooth and predictable instead of sporadic? Can they communicate when things go wrong, and make a corrective action? 

What’s satisfying about IAG Cargo is the combination of Iberia, British Airways and Aer Lingus which creates a pathway to opportunity that my customers are looking for. There are fewer mechanical issues and they communicate well, being as transparent and honest as possible when it’s tough to do so. Being a legacy carrier that isn’t ‘going anywhere,’ so to speak, also gives us extra comfort. 

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