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Sweet Delicious Strawberries, Fresh Export Produce Must Fly On Time

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For companies shipping West Coast fruits and vegetables by air to high-end supermarkets and restaurants in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, one rule supersedes all others: Never break the cold chain.

If fresh strawberries from Oxnard bound for Munich or Tokyo or Hong Kong sit in the sun for as few as 15 minutes -- whether on a truck bound for Los Angeles International Airport or on the tarmac awaiting a 15-hour flight -- they could be ruined. Every berry must be kept cold at all points in the logistics chain, or stakeholders will lose out on profit.

"It must work like a Swiss watch," said Veli Polat, Lufthansa Cargo's regional director for the Western United States, Mexico and Central America. "It's about reliability and on-time service."

At Lufthansa, Germany's national airline, fresh California produce not only flies three times weekly from Los Angeles to Europe on all-cargo Boeing 777s, but goes in the belly of just about every passenger flight from Los Angeles -- one a day to Munich and either one or two per day to Frankfurt, depending on the season.

On a full flight, chilled fruits and vegetables can weigh as much as all the passenger bags combined: a 747 bound for Frankfurt might have 20,000 pounds of luggage and roughly 25,000 pounds of cargo, much of it relatively high-value fruits and vegetables, like asparagus, cherries, lettuce and berries.

Shipping produce by air is mostly a niche business, worth about $440 million annually to California's economy, according to international trade economist Jock O'Connell. But for major international airlines operating out of Los Angeles, shipping produce is a key business, especially in the spring and summer, when exports peak.

Most major international airlines at LAX transport produce, allowing markets abroad to sell fresh fruits and vegetables as quickly as 48 hours after they're picked in places

like Watsonville and Santa Maria. According to airport data, fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts account for 15 percent of the total cargo shipments by weight at LAX.

Because shipping by air is far pricier by sea, some general rules apply: Fruits and vegetables sent on flights should be unavailable abroad, must be able to fetch high prices at markets and must be brittle enough that they cannot be sent by ship. Oranges, for example, are a better candidate for ships because they're heavy, relatively cheap and hold up well at sea.

Airline officials say profits on fruits and vegetables are low (Lufthansa Cargo makes "a few cents" on the dollar, Polat said), but fresh produce can help airlines make extra money -- perhaps enough to prop up an otherwise marginal route. Other cargo such as turbines, solar panels, live animals, clothing and even automobiles generally provide higher margins, airline executives say.

"If our flight is full with passengers, then obviously additional cargo revenue can make it more profitable," said Masaru F. Uchida, director of cargo planning and sales cargo in the Americas for Japan Airlines. "Or, if the passenger load is not so full but we're able to get a sufficient amount of cargo on the flight, the revenue from cargo can make the flight profitable. But cargo just by itself cannot be the main revenue on that flight."

From Farm to Market

Though the airline flies the freight, another company usually handles much of the rest -- packing items for shipment, checking to see they're safe and secure, and ensuring they're packed with ice.

A major player in the business is Los Angeles-based Able Freight Services Inc., which works with more than 20 airlines and exports more than 132 million pounds of fruits and vegetables by air every year from California and western Mexico.

The process from farm to grocer is fast, company Executive Vice President Orlando Wong said.

California strawberries can arrive on store shelves in Hong Kong, Paris or Munich less than two days after they're picked. Produce bound for farther points takes a little longer. The quicker the transport, the longer the shelf life and higher the profit margin for companies like Able Freight.

There's some variation, but strawberries and blueberries grown in Watsonville, Santa Maria and Oxnard are usually picked in the morning, and then brought to a cooling facility, where they're chilled from the ambient growing temperature to 34 degrees Fahrenheit.

Boxes of fresh fruit are put into pallets suitable to be shipped in large, double-aisle airplanes, such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380, and trucked to LAX.

Most airlines try to ensure fruits and vegetables arrive about three hours before a flight leaves, making for the most efficient (and reliably coldest) transport possible. But airlines must leave enough time for traffic: Since trucks on the tarmac must yield to airplanes, the three-mile trip from Lufthansa Cargo to the Tom Bradley International Terminal can take 25 to 30 minutes.

On board, the captain sets the cargo hold temperature -- usually somewhere between 35 and 46 degrees.

"When you know that your produce is important, you want to set it at the lowest setting," Wong said. "But if at the last minute a passenger decides to bring a dog, the captain will have to bring the temperature up. That's not a good thing for our produce."

Some products move only from point to point -- say Los Angeles to Paris -- while others transfer from a hub to an outlying airport, just as a a passenger would. Much of the produce Lufthansa transports actually ends up in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia.

Some airports are more hospitable for transiting fresh fruits and vegetables than others: Frankfurt International Airport has a "perishable center," a 9,000-square-meter, temperature-controlled facility that processes about 130,000 metric tons of perishable goods every year.

Market Forces at Work

Sending fresh fruits and vegetables by air is a relatively new phenomenon, brought about by globalization and an increased desire of people worldwide to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, experts say.

Consumers abroad, especially those who shop in expensive supermarkets equivalent to Whole Foods, no longer want to buy wilted lettuce or bruised peaches.

"People are beginning to realize the value of fresh produce rather than produce that is half dead," Wong said.

Asia is considered a stronger market than Europe, but sometimes environmental forces change the dynamic. A drought in Spain, for example, can spark demand for California produce.

"For European consumption, they all want to buy local," Wong said. "They have green initiatives. They hate to see products coming in by airplane. But whenever there is a weather issue in Europe, we get a phone call. We're the 911 of produce."

Within Asia, a lot of the demand comes from outside the major airline hubs, produce experts say.

At Korean Airlines, only about 10 percent of the total asparagus, blueberries, cherries and radicchio carried by the airline actually goes to Korea, airline officials say, with the rest going to China, Japan and Southeast Asia. And many of the cherries, grapes and strawberries transported by Japan Airlines actually ends up as far away as Southeast Asia and even Australia.

Wherever the fruits and vegetables go, customers pay a healthy premium. One produce expert said a 125-gram container of California raspberries (roughly 4 1/2 ounces) might fetch as much as $20 in Moscow. Rates in Asia and Europe aren't as pricey, but they're still considerably more expensive than in Southern California.

Where demand is high, consumers tend to appreciate California produce for its quality. California farmers are known abroad for using clean water, and consumers view it as safe.

"You'll frequently find products with a brand that is basically a California license plate," said O'Connell, the trade economist who studies international air shipments. "There is a strong value attached to that brand. There's a lot of cache. California means a lot to people around the world. It conjures up images of sunshine and abundance and all of those grand things. It sells."

O'Connell and others say they expect the export market for produce to grow, especially to China and other developing areas with burgeoning middle classes.

"You don't have to just be a high-income country," said Roberta Cook, who teaches in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at the University of California, Davis. "If you are a developing country that is large enough, there will be a portion of your country, even if it is only 1 percent, that is willing to pay for produce."

In Western Europe, environmental groups and some politicians have pushed back against air shipments, fearing the carbon footprint they create outweighs the nutritional benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. But analysts following the produce market say Europeans still crave American produce. And many don't expect that to change.

"The fact of the matter is it's a choice," said Desmond O'Rourke, a former member of the Agricultural Economics Department at Washington State who now publishes a monthly produce newsletter. "If you want a diversified diet of fruit and vegetables, it has to come from a long distance."

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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