Cold cargo shipments soaring
Healthier lifestyles and rising affluence in Hong Kong and the mainland are helping to drive a rise in Asian imports of blueberries from Chile, grapes from California, apples from New Zealand and other fruit and vegetables from far-flung farms. And this growth in fruit and vegetable consumption is also fuelling a surge in refrigerated cargo shipments using enhanced technology to more readily compete with air carriers.
'Asia is eating more than it is exporting,' said Eric Eng, vice president for the global reefer trade at APL, the Singapore-headquartered container shipping line.
He pointed out that mainland consumers had increased spending power and were eating more imported blueberries, strawberries and other berry fruits. By comparison - while China was no longer a major exporter of apples - garlic exports, driven by foreign demand, were set to top 2.6 million tonnes, double last year's exports.
Eng said there was growing interest from South American farms and trade organisations to increase the volume of fruit and vegetable exports to the mainland and the rest of Asia.
Official figures show exports of blueberries from Chile to Asia surged 1,248 per cent in the past 10 years. Global blueberry and cranberry imports into Hong Kong alone rose to US$11 million last year, up from US$4.6 million a year earlier. By comparison, cherry imports into China almost doubled last year to 11,222 tonnes, up from 6,184 tonnes in 2009, government figures showed.
Eng indicated that fruit imports from both North and South America to Asia were likely to grow 8.5 per cent this year, quoting figures from Global Insight, while fruit imports from Latin America to Asia were set to rise 12 per cent next year.
His comments coincided with last week's Asia Fruit Logistica exhibition and congress in Hong Kong which attracted about 320 farmers, traders, shipping lines and produce marketing organisations.
Changes in the way produce was shipped had helped open Asia to South American farmers. Eng said that with an average of a 20 to 25-day transit time from Peru to China, the use of more advanced temperature- and atmosphere-controlled shipping equipment had slowed the ripening process for fruit and vegetables. 'Reducing the oxygen content to 5 per cent from 21 per cent inside the shipping container puts the fruit to sleep', Eng said.
He pointed out shipping the produce by sea from Latin America took three to four times longer than by airfreight, but was 40 per cent cheaper.
Eng said APL recently became 'the first container carrier' to transport grapes directly from Australia to Shenzhen while being able to strictly maintain the atmosphere inside the containers.
Under China's strict import laws, the consignment was subject to a 15-day quarantine to kill insects and other pests. This quarantine period started as soon as the container was shipped because the shipping company was able to electronically monitor the atmosphere within the container during transit. As a result, there was no need to quarantine the cargo in Hong Kong and the grapes could be sent straight to market on arrival in Shenzhen.
Orient Overseas Container Line, the Tung family-controlled shipping line, had developed a similar customer-focused electronic monitoring system it called 'myreefer' but it had not yet formally launched the application.
Eng estimated the growth in global reefer cargo volumes, including fruit, meat and other perishables, would average 6-8 per cent per year in the coming years.