How'd That Get On My Plate

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With a nod to the Food Network, and a toast to the chef, join us as we cut from the table and go straight to the source.

Food connoisseurs and chefs alike can appreciate the time and effort necessary to prepare savory meals at a favorite restaurant or in the confines of the kitchen. Plating food that is appealing to the palate requires a master culinary touch. Getting fresh ingredients off the pallet and to the plate demands equal mastery over manipulating logistics in the food supply chain.

Supply variability, timeliness, temperature sensitivity, expedited transportation costs, and Mother Nature challenge food producers and distributors to source the freshest fish, tastiest taters, firmest fruit, and greenest greens as economically, expeditiously, and efficiently as possible.

From Alaska's salmon-teeming Copper River Delta and the lush bean fields of Guatemala's central highlands, to the alluvial-rich potato farms of the Pacific Northwest and California's coastal strawberry fields, food shippers take great care processing, transporting, and distributing seasonal supplies to ready demand. Any way you slice it, these remarkable journeys expose the great lengths supply chains stretch to bring food to market.

CATCHING COPPER RIVER FEVER

The beginning of Alaska's annual Copper River salmon run in mid-May is a marvel of nature's boundless energy and the seafood industry's unfailing resolve. Every year the race begins anew as fish processors and restaurants compete to land the first big catch of Alaskan king salmon.

Ocean Beauty Seafoods is among a number of local companies that welcome the arrival of the king salmon's yearly migration from the open waters of the Pacific Ocean to its spawning grounds upriver in the glacially fed Copper River Valley. The Seattle-based company operates a processing facility in nearby Cordova that serves as the initial handling and distribution point for the king salmon that fishermen skim from the delta's shallows.

"The process begins at 7 a.m.," says Jan Koslosky, director of supply chain management for Ocean Beauty Seafoods. "We tender a vessel on grounds to receive fish, then organize an Alaska Air Cargo charter flight with other processors to get product to customers as fast as possible."

Alaska's wild salmon industry is highly regulated and certifiably sustainable so wildlife authorities and seafood companies go to great lengths to balance how much fish they take and when they take it.

"If a specific harvest period begins on Wednesday they'll generally fish from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The next harvest period might be one week later to allow the salmon to re-propagate. The fishing is tightly monitored," adds Koslosky.

With the initial push, pent-up demand inflates prices and allows Ocean Beauty to use expensive air freight to push product to market.

"We run fish down the line and remove heads and guts (H&G)," he says. "They are chilled and boxed with gel packs and an insulated liner system to add value. We ship these boxes through our fresh fish distribution network to white tablecloth businesses and fish bars at grocers such as Kroger and Safeway."

Ocean Beauty also ships fish to various markets across the United States in H&G form, where they are then filleted on site.

"Once that initial spike is satisfied, we work with supply and demand," explains Koslosky. "When prices diminish and we can't afford to airlift fish, we begin the transition to secondary processing in single frozen form at the Cordova plant."

Cordova is a unique location and logistics challenge because it is inaccessible by road. When early-season demand and prices allow, Ocean Beauty partners with Alaska Air Cargo to transport salmon to market. But the Seattle-based cargo carrier has a finite amount of lift between dedicated cargo freighters and combi aircraft—and air freight is expensive. For less-timely shipments, Ocean Beauty works with Alaska's Marine Highway System to run container-loads of salmon to Anchorage.

RUNNING FISH TO MARKET

The processor uses high-speed ferries to transport fish from Cordova to Whittier, a reshipment port on the Marine Highway System. "We transport fish in pre-chilled 40-foot containers, sharing the space with other processors," explains Koslosky.

In Whittier, the containers are trucked through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to Anchorage. An orchestrated departure time from Cordova to Whittier is critical. The one-lane, shared highway and railroad tunnel rotates inbound and outbound traffic every two hours so any undue delays add dwell time in Whittier.

"Containers leaving Cordova at 7 a.m. arrive in Whittier at 11 a.m., then trucks pull containers through the tunnel to Anchorage where they arrive by 2 p.m.," explains Koslosky. "In Anchorage a freight forwarder breaks the containers down and air freights shipments across the United States. We manage the process through to customer pick-up."

OUTWARD BOUND

Beyond the obvious hurdles of managing transportation, Ocean Beauty has taken a leadership position complying with the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) new directive for pre-screening cargo on passenger aircraft.

Congress has mandated 50-percent screening of all cargo ferried on passenger aircraft by February 2009, with 100-percent compliance expected in the summer of 2010.

"As a food processor and seafood company, we wrote our own security protocol to satisfy TSA requirements, and the Cordova facility is in full compliance," says Koslosky.

In accordance with the mandate, outside packaging will identify the seafood as coming from an approved facility, thus mediating any delays at the airport. Ocean Beauty is looking to enroll its other Alaskan facilities in the certification program as well.

The Alaskan seafood industry serves as a unique example of the many challenges shippers face matching seasonal supply to year-round demand. Operating in a highly regulated industry that is otherwise arbitrated by the whim and fancy of spawning salmon and fawning salmon gourmets is no small task.

"It requires a strategic planning process," says Koslosky, "but the weather and the fish have to cooperate as well."

DIGGING UP AN OLD STAPLE

Any way you couch it, just-in-time (JIT) logistics and potato farming are two unlikely peas in a pod. But for Fresh Solution Farms (FSF), a cooperative of six potato and onion growers, pulling inventory to demand is a valuable means for efficiently and economically managing its supply chain.

Established in 2007, the White Pigeon, Mich.-based partnership grows, distributes, and markets table stock potatoes for the retail grocery and food service industries. Individually, the companies operate their own production acreages and processing facilities across North America. En force, they are positioned to efficiently provide a full line of local, regional, and nationally sourced products year round through their collective network.

The consortium also owns and operates a washing, storage, and packing facility in White Pigeon that has been up and running since March 2008. The plant comprises 144,000 square feet of space, along with a two-lane rail siding.

"We are a grower, packer, and shipper," says Greg Salisbury, Fresh Solution Farms' general manager. "We receive produce in primarily raw bulk form, then store, wash, grade, size, and pack it to order in all container sizes."

Quite naturally, delivering the best potatoes to market begins with high-quality, well-drained, and sufficiently irrigated land and the selection of high-quality seed stock from certified seed growers.

Potato production varies in different parts of North America, with August to November the traditional harvest period in northern climes, and April to June typical for southern areas. Throughout the season, growers sample and test crops to provide feedback to field managers regarding quality and size profiles.

"When the desired size profile is reached, the vines are externally killed," says Salisbury. "The potatoes are allowed to move into a dormant state in the soil before harvest, ensuring a strong bond between the flesh of the tubers and the skin."

This delay between vine kill and harvest is important as it creates a durable skin resulting in better quality appearance and shelf life than a potato that is immediately harvested green.

Once potatoes get to the plant, they either move into long-term storage where temperature and humidity controls prolong life, or they are run directly into the plant process for immediate packaging and sale.

CRUISING FOR LESS BRUISING

In-plant processing begins with a bruise-reduction system designed to minimize potato drops of less than six inches. Inventory is then triple-washed: a pre-wash soak, followed by a high pressure brush wash, then an ozone infused sanitizing rinse to remove soil and eliminate bacteria. Finally, tubers move through a triple grading process where they are sized, sorted, and inspected for quality.

"After the triple-wash, triple-grade processes, the cooled, dried potatoes are packed to order," says Salisbury.

The care that goes into processing and packaging potatoes inside the plant matches the diligence with which FSF manages its supply chain. For all growers, the evergreen challenge is figuring out how to match nature's caprice with consumer demand.

"While vegetables are infinitely variable biological organisms that are planted, grown, and harvested on a calendar driven by nature, customers demand consistent quality, size, and responsiveness year-round," says Salisbury.

Success in the potato industry requires one part produce and one part logistics. "Product is seasonal by nature, but demand is steady and patterned year over year," he adds. "Technology helps us properly store product. Logistics fills in the gaps in terms of matching demand to available inventory."

The value that FSF brings to market is its capacity to smooth out variation so retailers and their customers can count on a year-round inventory of product in the quantities they need. Using its long-term bulk storage capabilities, FSF extends traditional harvests so that the network can move produce from areas where there is a surplus to demand.

"We serve some local market demand through the year during harvest time," Salsibury says. "Because there is no need for storage, potatoes move directly from the field to the bag."

PULLING POTATOES TO DEMAND

Outside harvest time, FSF's lean, demand-driven trappings enable it to efficiently move inventory across the country while squeezing out associated costs in the process.

"A pull logistics system is valuable because we don't have the same predictability that other JIT industries have," he says. "It's a competitive commodity market and we bid on business week to week."

FSF meets immediate demand and packs to order rather than to inventory. This minimizes finished goods on hand, and allows it to hold bulk stock in the least value-added form.

"Stock isn't built up as product runs through the system," explains Salisbury. "We don't have inventory sitting on the dock that has value built into it. While demand may be relatively consistent, packaging is much more flux. Variation can include a one-pound bag or a 50-pound box. This postponement allows us to avoid reprocessing and repackaging inventory."

FSF's lean inventory model also greatly benefits its customers in terms of flexibility and security. It allows them to take inventory out of their DCs and re-order in smaller lots because FSF can replenish on demand. This control and accountability, from harvest to sale, is equally important in terms of ensuring food quality and safety.

"We manage the value stream from supply to the customer," says Salisbury. "The land, the storage, the transportation, is all under our control. This way we can sustain a competitive price point and maintain optimum customer service and quality."

While JIT strategies are unique to the produce industry, FSF is committed to leaning on its pull approach to drive even greater value for the industry as a whole, and its customers in particular.

"Lean principles apply well in this industry," Salisbury says. "Based on a goal of minimizing waste, we have designed a plant that allows us to pack to order on a pull basis rather than build inventory then push it on the market with discounted pricing."

FULL OF BEANS

When New York City's world-renowned chefs are looking for an exotic fruit or choice green to spice up their menus and pique appetites, cost is usually secondary to selectivity and taste.

Agri Exotic Trading, a Clifton, N.J., exotic fruits and vegetables wholesale distributor, knows this well. It is a produce purveyor of choice. The company sells a variety of hard-to-find and difficult-to-get products sourced domestically and abroad to hotels, restaurants, gourmet grocers, and caterers. Among its many special offerings are French green beans—haricot verts in green bean speak—flown in from Guatemala.

Unlike Californian and Mexican-grown beans, which are smaller in size, less uniform, and stringier, the Guatemalan variety is sought after for its tenderness, consistency, intense flavor, and velvety smooth skin—a major draw for aesthete-minded chefs.

Bean production in Guatemala is relatively consistent year round with a slight drop in February and March when farmers turn over their fields, says Paul Ryan, produce buyer for Agri Exotic.

When replenishing inventory, the wholesale distributor calls its importers, buys the beans—800 cases of five-pound box quantities, as an example—and flies product into Kennedy and Newark Liberty airports, where its fleet of 20 refrigerated trucks picks up the freight and return to its multi-temperature, 16,000-square-foot facility. Agri Exotic then delivers orders to regional customers.

"At the airport, green beans are checked and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and fumigated with water and gas washes to prevent insect infestation," says Ryan.

Because of the green bean's sensitive nature, managing the cold chain throughout the harvesting, transportation, and distribution process is critical.

"Given the green bean's tenderness, its shelf-life is pretty tight—one to six days—otherwise it will dry out. So it's important to keep the cold chain moving," Ryan says. "Produce is warehoused and transported in 40- to 45-degree environments with high humidity."

French green beans have high water content so without proper chilling, moisture begins to evaporate and they shrivel. In the field, once beans are picked, they are brought down on skids and cooled in a room where the heat is sucked out, then they ship.

Most distributors turn French green beans in two days and re-supply just-in-time rather than hold inventory. If they don't sell in that time period, suppliers have to lower their prices to move product before it spoils. "It is a commodity market," Ryan adds.

Great care is also taken in grading and boxing crops for both efficiency and presentation. In Guatemala, French green beans are packaged by hand in five-pound containers. "When 100 people are hand-packing, the results are more uniform sizes, better grades, and more compact boxes," says Ryan. "You can reach in and pick up a perfect bunch of beans, which is important to chefs."

Finding that perfect bunch of uniform Guatemalan-grown French green beans to complement a well-choreographed meal challenges distributors such as Agri Exotic to sustain the cold chain, expedite transportation, and preserve the quality of the packaging to ensure orders are well-received by its clientele.

"The hardest part is timing—getting product to markets where there is demand,'" says Ryan.

PICKING AGAINST TIME

Nothing compares to a bowl of cereal or a piece of cake topped off with a handful of fresh strawberry halves. Rich in Vitamin C, low in calories, and full of color, strawberries require equal portions of collaboration and logistics planning to get to the table.

W. Newell & Company, a Chicago-based fresh produce distributor and subsidiary of SUPERVALU, sources and transports a variety of high-volume domestic and foreign grown foods—including Californian-grown strawberries—to retailers across the country.

In California, where more than 80 percent of the United States' annual strawberry yield comes from, harvesting begins in December and extends through July for some parts of the state. When its growing season wanes, W. Newell follows the crop's seasonality to southern climes such as Florida. "We repeat the cycle every year," says Gary Gionnette, COO of W. Newell & Company.

Similar to many of the distributor's fresh produce items, strawberries demand extra diligence moving to market simply because of the freshness of the product and the fact that they aren't stored, adds Gionnette.

Generally, the distributor purchases product from strawberry companies that consolidate locally grown crops. Farmers pick and package their crops in the field, then transport to consolidation and cooling centers.

"These facilities house enormous rooms to cool product and pull field heat out," he says. "They don't have the space to hold multiple days of inventory as others might do with crops such as apples, potatoes, or onions."

From these facilities, W. Newell works with third-party carriers to haul full truckloads, sometimes mixed with produce such as melons, tree fruit, and berries, to its Champagne, Ill., distribution facility. The refrigerated trucks keep temperatures in compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, often between 34 and 36 degrees.

RAIL: COST VS. TIME

While W. Newell predominantly uses trucking to manage the expediency of its transportation needs, it will occasionally use rail—trailer on flat car—to move product to a consolidator in Chicago where it is then transloaded to its DC.

"Rail is a cost-efficient transport mode, and we measure that relative to quantities we want to take in. It generally takes one additional day compared to truck because of the consolidation step," says Gionnette.

From its Champagne facility, W. Newell works with its third-party partner, Holland, Mich.-based Total Logistic Control (TLC), to transport outbound shipments to retailers. As its dedicated carrier, TLC makes about 1,500 deliveries a week, averaging 440 miles and five stops per trip. Depending on order drop times and demand, the 3PL moves replenishment inventory to stores four times a week, and sometimes daily.

Like any perishable shipment, W. Newell has to turn products in very tight windows—and these windows are subject to weekly variability.

"We have to be very sensitive to changes during the week. Impulse shopping is tough to forecast," explains Gionnette. "If a customer is ordering 24 hours later for replenishment, we have to factor this in and forecast out three or four days to meet demand."

The reward is well worth the effort. For W. Newell, its retail customers, and consumers, the proof of its distribution efficiency is in the strawberry pudding.

"Product harvested on Monday morning in California will reach Champagne in three to four days," notes Gionnette. "We then turn inventory in 24 hours so that fresh strawberries arrive in stores on Friday."

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