At a recent international food exhibition held annually in Japan, the Thai booth advertised itself as the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Kitchen of the WorldÃ¢â‚¬Â. No surprise as there is big global demand for its high quality fruits and vegetables. But over the last few years, Thai fresh produce has taken a beating from stiff competition in India, Kenya, Ghana, Peru and other countries. By Manfred Singh in Bangkok.
While food costs are high, Thai logistics costs have pushed it higher. To top it all, there is constant demand for quality. A troubled Thai air freight community has been trying to find ways to reduce costs.According to David Ambridge, general manager cargo at Bangkok Flight Services,logistics costs can be pushed downusing out-of-the-box solutions.
A ripple effect from this will help Thai produce get back to its top position he says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Not only can we change but we must change before this valuable business moves away to those who have changed already.Ã¢â‚¬Â Worse still, he says, is the fact that although other markets offer produce of a lower quality than Thailand, their products are delivered at the right price.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The only way out is to think out of the box and change the manner in which the whole business is done,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said. And this means a joint approach by shippers, forwarders, airlines, cool chain providers and consignees.
One of the key problems that affect the movement of perishables by air out of Thailand is the large percentage that suffers from the vagaries of temperature. Freight forwarders have to contend with a double whammy: On one hand there is pressure to lower costs and on the other the importance of maintaining quality.
Different packing needed
Caught, as it were, between the devil and the deep blue sea, forwarders often advise exporters to use the newer and advanced forms of packaging. But tradition or a lack of knowledge keeps exporters from using such products.
Ambridge believes that the newer kinds of packaging material are not used simply because of temperature concerns during transit. The most common forms of packaging – polystyrene foam, nonrecyclable foam boxes and gel packs Ã¢â‚¬“ eat up at least 15 per cent of the valuable airfreight space and are not environmentally friendly.
Shippers, therefore, need to start using more environmentally friendly products like cardboard or corex, which are cheaper not only in terms of cost, but also as far as transportation and storage are concerned. While such packaging does away with the task of disposal at destinations, they require constant monitoring of the cold chain.
Cardboard boxes, unlike the expanded foam boxes, can accommodate higher volumes and are not subject to impending environmental bans.
Once exporters switch over to such packaging material, forwarders can look to ULD rates rather than per kilo rates.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Buying a fixed ULD rate is generally a little cheaper for the shipper but still protects the airlineÃ¢â‚¬™s revenue stream,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Ambridge. As an example, he pointed out that when polystyrene foam is used to load produce in an LD3 container, around 500 kilograms of net product can be accommodated per LD3 and that too is often sold at volumetric weight. On the other hand, cardboard packaging can accommodate up to 1,300 kilos of net product Ã¢â‚¬“ if it is baby corn or asparagus for instance Ã¢â‚¬“ in the same container. Imagine the kind of saving that a shipper can make? For the airline too, the switchover to such packaging could mean more revenue.
Cool chain important
Given all these inputs, the most essential ingredient would be the maintenance of quality. That is where the cool chain cycle would come into play. Effective pre-cooling techniques have to be put into practice to protect the perishable before it leaves the packing house. Cool pallets and thermal blankets could be put to good use to maintain temperature during the journey from farm to air cargo terminal.
Pallets would take care of the unloading and loading process Ã¢â‚¬“ often fraught with danger for perishables Ã¢â‚¬“ at the air cargo terminal. Perhaps, what is more important is the fact that palletisation brings in more efficiency at airports.
Ambridge advises that pack houses too could chip in to reduce costs. Precooling, he says can be done in the cargo terminal cool rooms to chill the product down to the correct temperature before it is loaded into airline containers. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Insulated containers have already been placed into the Cool Room at 2Ã‚ÂºC before the produce even arrives at the airport. This ensures that we have a pre-chilled container ready.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“After pre-cooling the produce is loaded into a standard container which we line with special recyclable thermal insulation. We then keep the sealed container in the Cool Room until just before it has to be delivered to the aircraft for the outbound flight.Ã¢â‚¬Â The container can then be transported to the aircraft in an air-conditioned dolly and the captain of the flight informed that perishable cargo is on the flight and that the temperature in the belly of the aircraft is set accordingly.
Bangkok Flight Services, for instance, has started using returnable pallet covers and ULD liners to avoid and reduce packaging waste. The company has made arrangements to track these thermal pallet covers through the airlines and has managed to save a lot of expenses.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We have already shipped over 700 LD3s and have not had a single claim for product spoilage,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Ambridge. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Compare that to other shipping methods where 20-30 per cent of the produce is immediately dumped on arrival as it has spoiled (and for which airfreight has been paid).Ã¢â‚¬Â
It would be worthwhile for all stakeholders in the fresh produce business to ensure that food safety policies are brought about in consultation with organisations worldwide. Once Thai perishable producers and exporters cooperate and establish a standard working model which will make consumers around the world rely on the freshness and quality of food sent out from Bangkok, Thailand could trulybecome the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Kitchen of the WorldÃ¢â‚¬Â.