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United Fresh LIVE! workshop discusses global trade challenges in pandemic

Each day of the United Fresh LIVE! virtual trade show this week features multiple workshops for visitors to attend. On Tuesday June 16th, the workshop entitled Global Trade Challenges in the COVID-19 brought together leaders from around the globe to discuss the challenges faced by trade partners throughout the pandemic, and the solutions born out of the crisis that could drive solutions around the globe in the future. The three panelists were Frederine Derlot, Irenke Meekma and Patricia Compres. Tiffany Compres moderated the panel.

Top left: Tiffany Compres; top right: Frederine Derlot; bottom left: Pat Compres; bottom right: Irenke Meekma.

Small, non-certified growers hit hard
The first topic under discussion looked at the challenges faced around the world as a result of the pandemic. Frederine Derlot is a market linkage expert at the International Trade Centre for the United Nations and helps exporters in developing countries find and reach export markets. She explained that in developing countries, small suppliers were hit hard by the loss of food service. “A lot of the exporters we work with supply the foodservice sector. Most small or newer exporters aren’t fully certified, and these are the people who suffered the most because they weren’t able to redirect their supplies into different markets or into retail.”

Top right: Frederine Derlot.

Other issues that were faced by exporters in these countries were those of logistics. Derlot explains: “They work a lot with exotic products, which often are shipped by air. This made it difficult for them to ship their products, if they were able to find a market for it. Additionally, the SKU reduction also brought the temporary elimination of many of these exotic products. One fortunate thing is that a lot of exotics are not that exotic anymore. Products like bananas and pineapples have really become staples and consumers expect to be able to find them in stores year-round.”

Many suppliers in Africa grow products that are mainly for the export markets. With the export markets becoming severely limited due to the pandemic, they had to turn to their own domestic markets. “A lot of the suppliers in developing countries have begun diversifying their markets more. Many of their products are export-only, and they are beginning to work on developing their domestic markets, too, because it became necessary during the pandemic,” Derlot shares.

Complications in both air and ocean logistics
Pat Compres is a customs broker based in Florida, focusing on produce entering the US and she saw first-hand the impact the pandemic had on logistics. “We saw airports shut down. Air cargo from specific regions stopped completely, from Europe and Taiwan, for example. To this day, there aren’t many planes, and this impacts the entire world. Airlines decided to allow cargo on the bodies of planes to help ease the issue, but that wasn’t enough. Then, on top of this, ocean transit also reduced: some carriers would have three or four ships leaving a week, and this was reduced to one because they didn’t have enough dry cargo to help fill them up. The produce cargo is still shipped in the same volumes, but with delays which impacts freshness and shelf life upon arrival,” says Pat Compres.

Top right: Pat Compres.

One of the issues that became apparent was that of having to deal with physical paperwork in a world under lockdown. “At the end of the day, most countries require original files,” Pat Compres explains. “We are noticing that the government here in the US is moving forward with doing things more electronically, but in the logistics business you work together with hundreds of other governments and it is tough to get them all to agree on something. This is something that is being worked on, but it will take some time. Ocean carriers are also fighting to go paperless, but many people are hesitant about this because the bill of lading provides ownership. The carrier coalition did announce that they are working to go paperless within the next year or so.”

Double digit retail growth requires major flexibility
Irenke Meekma is the Managing Director at Bakker Barendrecht, a Greenyard company. She explains the changes that had to happen as a response to the onset of the pandemic, which brought with it an enormous spike in retail demand, along with the loss foodservice. “It was like Christmas overnight, but without preparation, and lasting for months,” Meekma says.

Right: Irenke Meekma.

In Europe, all the borders stayed open for food transport which was a relief for the company. However, there were other issues that required attention. “One of the big changes that needed to be made was for frozen produce. A lot of frozen produce is destined for food service, and this of course dropped to almost 0%. At the same time, the demand for frozen products at the retail level spiked because people were stockpiling. To respond to this imbalance in demand and supply, we changed the packaging on our frozen products destined for foodservice into consumer packaging. This isn’t going to be a lasting change of course, because the food service demand will return,” Meekma shares.

Lasting changes
To close the session, each of the panelists discussed what they believed would be lasting changes. Many of these had already been developing pre-pandemic but were accelerating in their development by the pandemic. Examples of this are ecommerce, going paperless, and the trend of buying local, “though products will continue to be imported as well, to ensure year-round supply,” Derlot comments. Working from home is something that will also likely stay, to an extent, according to the panelists. “We’ve seen that it works, and that is saves costs,” says Pat Compres. “Though we need to make sure that the home-work-balance and team cohesiveness is maintained,” Meekma adds.

“In the end, change is constant, and we all need to work together. We need to be nimble and be able to move with the time,” Tiffany Compres, session moderator, concluded.

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