Perishables shipments by air is growing amidst challenges

While seafood has been the fastest growing commodity in the last three years for Kuehne+Nagel, top destinations for fresh products include India, Kenya and the Netherlands for Etihad Cargo.

Perishables shipments by air is growing amidst challenges
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With demand increasing for perishables across the world, shipping them by air not only saves precious time for cargo that has a short shelf life but also ensures it reaches the final destination as fresh as plucked from the ground.

The challenges for airlines and forwarders involved in moving perishables across the globe are countless as are the regulations governing them. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has issued Perishable Cargo Regulations (PCR) to streamline the shipments of perishables. "Failures along the cold chain, which can be catastrophic for small businesses, are at times due to improper documentation, labelling or poor packaging. The PCR has all the up-to-date, best-practice and guidance information you need to develop loss-minimising perishable shipping processes," IATA says in its update.

Miami International Airport, the gateway for imports from Latin America, for example, reports 40 percent tonnage of fresh cut flowers among perishables imports by October 2023 (up from 38 percent in 2022) followed by fish fillets (21 percent) and fish (eight percent). By value, fresh cut flowers increased seven percent to $1.2 billion while fish fillets declined to $1.3 billion.

Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru recorded a 124 percent surge in mango exports in 2023, compared to the previous year, establishing a three-year tonnage record.

Bengaluru Airport processed exports of 684,648 kgs of mangoes, a significant rise from 305,521 kgs exported in the previous year. This season's exports saw an 86 percent increase in the number of pieces with approximately 1.7 million pieces of mangoes being exported.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) reported exports of 4,700 tonnes of mangoes in 2023, a 318 percent increase compared to 1,123 tonnes in 2022. The key aspect contributing to the achievement is the recent approval granted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the export of Indian mangoes to the United States. The approval comes after a hiatus in mango exports to the USA since 2020, primarily due to travel restrictions imposed on the USDA inspectors to visit India during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Key challenges
When Kuehne+Nagel launched FreshChain, it wanted to demonstrate to the market that it was possible to create a global perishables network with quality as a differentiator. "We wanted our customers to be able to rely on a global consistency adhering to the strictest standards even when using multiple stations,” says Dennis Verkooy, Senior Vice President, Global Perishables Air Logistics, Kuehne+Nagel.

Dennis Verkooy, Senior Vice President, Global Perishables Air Logistics, Kuehne+Nagel.

“Since its inception, the market feedback has been very positive as we are the only organisation that has created transparent processes that are both internally and externally audited. It is imperative that when dealing with perishable cargo covering a multitude of products that our colleagues not only have strict guidelines but also access to proper training and the best internal support. We receive feedback from both shippers and receivers that this gives them a peace of mind, knowing that we understand the complexity of their products."

Etihad Cargo ensures perishables are transported reliably, efficiently and safely via its dedicated IATA CEIV Fresh-certified FreshForward. Fabrice Panza, Manager, Global Cool Chain Solutions, Etihad Cargo says: "Since its launch, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response from our partners and customers who rely on Etihad Cargo to maintain, monitor and control conditions to mitigate the risks associated with the transport of perishables.

"Etihad Cargo transports a wide and diverse range of perishable commodities including fruits, vegetables, seafood, flowers, plants, meat, baked goods, chocolate, herbs, spices, eggs, cosmetics, cheese and dairy. Features of FreshForward include expedited ramp handling for arriving and departing aircrafts, late priority dispatch from storage facilities to the aircraft, a dedicated, upgraded perishables centre in Abu Dhabi, temperature-controlled storage facilities, shipments transported from aircraft to storage facilities on priority basis, and robust contingency process and procedures to mitigate the risk of operational failures and temperature excursions.

"By offering state-of-the-art solutions such as temperature-controlled containers, thermal blankets and specialised packaging, Etihad Cargo ensures the integrity and efficacy of products. Etihad Cargo utilises specialised breathable thermal covers to help mitigate environmental risks associated with environmental conditions outside of temperature-controlled cool rooms such as the ambient temperature as perishable cargo is being transported from our aircraft to our dedicated temperature-controlled facility."

Customers find Cathay Fresh highly reliable, and Cathay Cargo is proud to learn that customers are well assured of our quality service and timely delivery of their fresh produce in the best conditions available, says Siddhant Iyer, Head of Cargo Markets and Customer Solutions, Cathay Cargo. "Knowing that customers constantly seek better management over critical control points, we have begun to use cool dollies on selected perishable commodities at our Hong Kong hub to protect highly sensitive shipments from the extreme tarmac environment. Service enhancement on both procedures and infrastructure will be a constant effort while Cathay continues to uphold IATA CEIV Fresh standards and work towards becoming one of the world’s greatest customer-centric air cargo service brands."

Vijan Chetty, Board Director, Cold Chain Association (CCA) and General Manager, Perishable Products Export Control Board (PPECB), South Africa’s Official Perishable Produce Export Certification Agency, highlights the importance for cooling and handling of perishables quoting a study on raspberries.

Vijan Chetty, Board Director, Cold Chain Association (CCA)

“The raspberry trial followed an export of raspberries from a farm in Cape Town, South Africa, where some 85 percent of raspberries are produced for the export market to the United Kingdom. Approximately 30 percent of all berry exports from South Africa have quality defects. The trial showed that the cut-to-cool time, taken to bring the berries down to a temperature of around 5 ̊C should be reduced to within 60 minutes of harvest to better maintain berry quality during storage. The trial indicated that a lower air temperature of 0 ̊C rather than the current 2 ̊C should be used for blast cooling."

Training is key
Kuehne+Nagel has initiated special training for employees handling perishables. “The quality, safety, health & environment (QSHE) specialists / managers undertake training provided by Kuehne+Nagel’s Quality Expert Team Food (QETF – a multidisciplinary global expert team) at various levels depending on the role and responsibilities. The training materials are regularly reviewed to ensure best practice and that the content is up to date for food storage and distribution – (Last revision within past 12 months). The QETF has also completed training on food safety culture which is on the agenda to be rolled out to all stations soon,” says Verkooy.

Kuehne+Nagel has been able to get 31 stations FreshChain attested with an additional seven in progress. Verkooy adds: "As we started to deploy certifications, we prioritised to certify the main stations where we move the most volume first, and after that rolling out other parts of the network to keep the service standardised across all the active perishable stations. At this moment, our attested stations hold 85 percent of our total volume, affirming the rationale to introduce internal standards."

Fabrice Panza, Manager, Global Cool Chain Solutions, Etihad Cargo

Etihad Cargo follows stringent food safety management protocols with the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) methodology. Panza says: "Every member of Etihad Cargo’s team receives extensive training as highly-trained staff are essential to maintaining the quality of perishables throughout their journey, and follows strict protocols to control the temperature of perishables shipments.

"Etihad Cargo’s commitment to provide world-class perishables transportation services is precisely why we sought out and achieved International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s Center of Excellence for Independent Validators (CEIV) Fresh certification. Etihad Cargo was the first Middle East airline to hold both IATA CEIV Fresh and Pharma certifications in 2019 and one of only two carriers globally to have achieved this dual honour in the same year.

"Being IATA CEIV Fresh-certified demonstrates Etihad Cargo’s compliance with the IATA Perishable Cargo Regulations (PCR), ensuring food safety, reducing waste, reinforcing trust and enabling us, in partnership with our customers, to implement best practices across all required cold chain solutions."

The objective of the CCA's raspberry and cut-flower trials was to enhance the quality of perishable produce in the market, adds Chetty. "The trials revealed that this improvement involves adjusting current handling procedures and elevating airfreight cold chain management to match the standards used for sea freight.

"Ensuring the quality of the produce involves paying close attention to cartons and packaging. For fresh fruits and vegetables, it's crucial to have ventilation holes evenly distributed throughout the packaging. These holes should always be visible to allow for consistent cooling of the product.

"Maintaining the right temperature is also essential. To achieve this, specialised boxes and packing materials like gel packs, thermal blankets, and dry ice can be employed. It's imperative to select the appropriate materials to ensure the product remains at the desired temperature.

"Labels should also be employed to specify the type of perishable product and the recommended storage temperature. These labels should be readily recognisable by cold storage personnel and ground handlers, guaranteeing that the product is stored at the optimum temperature."

Tech innovations, dedicated solutions
Kuehne+Nagel works closely with several organisations including shippers and manufacturers of temperature sensitive products. "In addition, Kuehne+Nagel has developed a platform called myKN which has the capability to show users, as an example, their CO2 footprint. We are also working with a significant producer to reduce food wastage from post-harvest to end consumer. This has involved growers, transporters, airlines and retail units. Kuehne+Nagel understands the relevance and our responsibility in sustainability, not only in perishables but through all levels in the organisation and we will continue to be active and visible around this topic,” says Verkooy.

Cathay Cargo provides Ultra Track service as a value-added option to Cathay Fresh shipments, which offers enhanced data visibility for both customers and Cathay staff throughout the shipment journey using Bluetooth technology, adds Iyer. "With near real-time data, not only can customers keep track of shipping environment conditions and locations, Cathay Cargo operation teams can also stay ahead of shipment statuses and provide 24/7 response to any customer queries via live chat."

To meet growing demand, Etihad Cargo launched a new cool chain facility that will double its cool chain storage capacity in the Abu Dhabi hub. "Our new cool chain centre will also provide smooth transfers to Etihad Cargo’s FreshForward truck fleet when products need to be delivered in the UAE or be handed over to the consignee at Abu Dhabi Airport, making the end-to-end journey of perishables easier and safer," adds Panza.

With a multi-phased cargo infrastructure development strategy in place, including an expanded perishables centre, Etihad Cargo is committed to developing a Cool Chain Centre of Excellence at its state-of-the-art UAE hub. "Our expanded fresh facility is IATA CEIV Fresh-certified, which gives our customers confidence that Etihad Cargo’s commercial activities and operations adhere to the highest industry standards and they can trust that Etihad Cargo’s FreshForward product provides the fresh, fast, simple and efficient features they need from their air cargo partner of choice.

"Additionally, all Etihad Cargo’s cool rooms are equipped with alarmed temperature-monitoring systems and are calibrated on a regular basis. Every critical control point throughout the perishables’ journey is checked and recorded to ensure the integrity of the product with temperature checks taken at key locations, offering our clients full transparency and traceability of shipments."

Etihad Cargo recently enhanced its cool chain capabilities in the U.S. through network expansion with Worldwide Flight Services (WFS), a member of the SATS Group. "Etihad Cargo's customers will benefit from consistent end-to-end cargo services via the carrier's FreshForward products in addition to the cargo handling facilities and services offered by WFS at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport."

Growth areas
The seafood commodity has been the fastest growing commodity in the last three years for Kuehne+Nagel, according to Verkooy. "Since we acquired Salmosped in Norway, we saw our footprint grow in this vertical commodity and we now have a solid presence and service offering. We are also heavily involved in protein substitutes such as plant-based products. We see continued development from multiple countries in this area and we need to support those manufacturers in this relatively new sector."

Fruit and vegetables make up 40 percent of Etihad's total perishables volume. Meat and fish come in second, making up close to one-third of the total volume, says Panza. "Top destinations for fresh products include India, Kenya and the Netherlands."

Etihad Cargo is exploring the utilisation of artificial intelligence to improve forecasting and automation to enhance current capacity and capabilities to support the sector’s growth.

"We will continue to enhance our temperature-controlled infrastructure including facilities, storage and transportation solutions. We will also invest in advanced technologies such as real-time monitoring systems and data analytics to ensure even greater visibility and control over the transportation process, building on the success of Pharma Corridor 2.0 to launch Fresh Corridor between Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam, using developments in the pharma supply chain as an enabler in the transportation of perishables."

Fresh shipments have always been an important part of Cathay Cargo solutions, adds Iyer. "With the recovery of passenger flights, we have been able to regain and establish new Fresh business from all around the world. The perishables sector is expected to stay strong with increasing demand worldwide."

The perishables industry will see ongoing advancements in cold chain technologies such as refrigeration, monitoring systems, and packaging materials, says Chetty of CCA.

"Companies are likely to invest in sustainable practices such as energy-efficient transportation and packaging to meet consumer demands and regulatory requirements. Shippers will need to adhere to stricter packaging, thermal protection and labelling requirements to decrease waste and increase customer satisfaction."

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