More than 1,000 miles of road lie between the market gardens and orchards of Spain and the fresh produce aisles of the supermarkets they supply in the UK. Produce Business UK talks to a producer-exporter, an importer and a supply-chain consultant to find out how the sector is meeting the logistics challenges of the 21st century
“In my opinion there have not been many changes over the last 10-20 years in logistics across Europe as a whole,” muses Manuel Madrid, managing director of Fruit Profits, a fresh produce consultancy based in the eastern Spanish city of Valencia.
“We are spoilt in Europe because the distance from production areas in Spain to markets such as the UK are short, relative to other parts of the world. For example, you can reach the UK from Spain in 48-72 hours, whereas the distance from the production areas on the US west coast to the east coast is four to five days, and it is the same from Mexico to the US east coast.”
Cool chain risks
Madrid believes this has stifled innovation to some extent and led to practices that are less than ideal for fresh produce. “We see the sharing of loads so one truck can carry more than one product on board,” he explains. “This is known as groupage and it means you can see citrus and berries in the same truck, for example. The temperature is usually set at a mid-point between what is suitable for each product, say between 5°C and 8°C. It is a common practice as it saves space and time, but it can be detrimental to the quality of product.”
The quality issues this can cause in, for example, soft fruit – requiring an optimal temperature of 0°C to 1°C – can be that the fruit loses moisture or turns darker in colour if it is transported at 4°C to 5°C. Madrid says this can then lead to a significant loss of shelf-life over a two-day journey.
While most of the time the quick turnarounds by retail stores and the relatively short transit times do not cause problems, there can sometimes be issues. “The problem is when something else goes wrong,” Madrid points out. “If it has been raining, for example, and the condition of the product is not perfect, then problems will show up if you are abusing the cool-chain and storing at suboptimal temperatures.”
Room for improvement
Combining loads usually occurs at the beginning and end of seasons, meaning it’s not uncommon to find melons and citrus sharing a truck, or leafy vegetables and citrus, for example, according to Madrid. But the practice is still open to risk.
“I think this – groupage and suboptimal temperatures – is an area that definitely needs some improvement, especially as the UK supermarkets have their own depots and could receive whole loads,” he says. “We are seeing some moves in this direction with dual-temperature trucks that have a wall in the middle to separate different products.”
However, with a multitude of smaller producers, different shippers and retailers all involved, Madrid admits the picture is complicated.
Madrid points to the Canary Islands as a good example of centralised shipments, where growers bring their tomatoes and bananas to a hub before being loaded for sea-freight. However, sea-freight for shipment from mainland Spain has not proved an attractive option, as Nacho Juárez, citrus manager at second-tier co-operative and major exporter Anecoop, explains.
“There are an increasing number of alternatives to traditional transport by road. But in the case of Anecoop, the high degree of flexibility and responsiveness that our specific way of working with the pre-packs the UK demands, means most of our product is packed on a very quick order/service turnaround, which cannot easily be met by means other than traditional lorries.”
For Anecoop, the main disadvantage of sea-freight is the longer delivery time. “The pre-pack system with the limits of a display-until date means the order/service cycles are very short and not easily adapted to cycles longer than five days,” explains Juárez. “Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that for those products that can be pre-packed on arrival or delivered loose in bulk there is any problem in using alternative transport means, which bring greater economies. At Anecoop we are trying to analyse, in both cost and service terms, with which alternative means we can work to a greater extent.”
John Grieve is director of Lisons Ltd, a specialist UK importer of Spanish produce with experience of sea-freight from mainland Spain. “We have received produce by ship from Spain occasionally and just one container at a time so we have only experimented really from Cartagena and Bilbao,” he says.
“For Spain, the UK is close enough to use road transport and people find the flexibility of using lorries much better. For example, if there are problems with high winds, there can be delays at ports with unloading, so a two-to-three day journey can become five days, which is no good for strawberries or raspberries. I think that’s why sea-freight hasn’t really taken off.”
Investment in innovation
Grieve is quick to point out, however, that Spanish producers and exporters have been investing in the cool chain with much better refrigeration technology being introduced over the past decade, as well as handlers becoming savvy in how to use it.
“Producers and exporters realise that heat needs to be taken out of the product before it is loaded into the trucks and that trucks mustn’t be used to bring the temperature down, rather to maintain it,” he says.
In reality, Lisons’ main concerns recently about transport have centred around maintenance work to the Eurotunnel going beyond schedule and causing delays, as well as security issues around the tunnel itself.
Looking ahead, Anecoop’s research and development that has been ongoing at source for many years shows no sign of abating. The co-operative, which groups together more than 70 producer co-ops, is continually analysing ways to strengthen the shelf-life of its products.
“We work on improving the end product and on packaging, as well as optimal transport conditions along the supply chain right up until delivery to the customer,” says Juárez. “It is exactly this sort of agility in the supply chain which allows us to achieve short delivery times through the use of specialised transport channels for each category. Also with our sister company in the UK – Fesa UK – we have very modern infrastructure at our disposal, so we can adapt to the specific requirements of any fresh produce line destined for the UK marketplace.”
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