Freight to Plate: A taste for the exotic

Freight_to_plateAlaska Air Cargo is one example of how much the world has come to rely on airfreight delivery of high-quality meat, fruit and vegetables vir­tually anywhere with a runway across the globe. Foods that used to be con­sidered “exotic” or limited to narrow growing seasons – such as blueberries, strawberries or asparagus – are now routinely shipped globally, 12 months out of the year, as various regions of the world experience growing seasons at different times.

The demand for fresh food is also no longer just a small niche between developed countries. Today, the ris­ing middle class around the world has developed an appetite for a rapidly expanding menu of items, and they no longer want to schedule their con­sumption by season. While most food is still sent by truck and container ship – each of which have perfected the art of maintaining freshness for weeks after the food is harvested – there will always be certain foods that cannot last beyond a few days; in some cases, it’s a matter of hours.

“You can never completely switch everything to seafreight,” said Chris­tian Helms, CEO of the German-based Cool Chain Group, an organization dedicated to promoting the quality of temperature-sensitive goods. “For commodities like asparagus from Peru, you have to use airfreight. In the higher-wealth countries, there will always be a portion that will go by airfreight, because it will always be seen as a new and valuable commodity, like raspber­ries in December.”

The way much of the world buys sal­ads from the supermarket these days is another testament to the ubiquity of food sent by air. “It used to be you would shop for the various separate vegetables that were available each season,” he said. “Now we have con­venient pre-washed, pre-packaged salads. Now we go to the supermarket and pick up whatever organic mix we like.”

Another way to measure the health of the perishables market is to note the growth of cool-chain facilities specializ­ing in perishable food. For example, at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, Prime Fresh Handlers, a perishable products handling specialist operating jointly with Worldwide Flight Services (WFS), is preparing to open a new 3,000-cubic-me­ter warehouse next month for perishables with direct airside access.The new facility has nine truck doors, will maintain three different temperature zones, have a cool room large enough to store up to 50 pal­lets and will house the world’s largest vacuum cooler. The fa­cility, with both warehouse and distribution capabilities, will specialize in handling fruits, vegetables and seafood, among other perishables.

Back in Seattle, Alaska Air Cargo’s Bacon said the carrier has doubled the capacity of its cool-chain and freezer rooms, so it can hold up to 100,000 pounds of seafood at once. The facil­ity’s freezer room now measures nearly 22,000 cubic feet, while the two cooler rooms have a combined capac­ity in excess of 45,000 cubic feet. And Alaska’s focus on perishables extends beyond facilities and equipment; customers can use Alaska’s “seafood desk” call center to track seafood shipments all the way through the supply chain and help determine the best possible route.

Like a roadside motel, the coolers don’t have occupants that stay very long. One day, live lobsters will fill the entire space. On another, it will be the temporary home of coho salmon and crab legs. Other times it will house boxes of vegetables. “We always have to keep things moving,” said Jason Berry, Alaska Air Cargo’s director of cargo operations and compliance. “That’s our business.”

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