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."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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