Is technology the answer for perishables?

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Thanks to the globalisation of eating habits, volumes of perishables being flown to consumer markets have risen by a third since 2007, more than for any other category of product, Neil Madden reports.

While the past year saw something of a slowing in this trade, the potential for growth remains enormous.

A decade ago, for example, the Chinese used to eat seasonally, but rising affluence now means they can afford to fly in red cherries from Chile for the Chinese New Year.

Yet, in many ways the air cargo industry needs to up its game such that service levels match demand growth.

At this year’s IATA World Cargo Symposium, Adelantex business development manager perishables, Frank Van Gelder insisted that food supply chains would need to improve and data would become crucial in this process.

The specialist freight forwarder, which is now owned by Panalpina, has put all its data on the cloud to show availability, and product and harvest information. This is then shared on a platform that in turn is connected to a food industry multi-data network.

Van Gelder pointed out that in this respect air cargo lags both sea and road freight.

Often, simple errors create headaches for airlines, forwarders and cargo handlers. A recent study by non-profit group Oceana stated that 30 per cent of seafood shipped around the world is mislabelled; in some regions this can be as much as 80 per cent.

This can mean that temperature sensitive goods end up being handled as general cargo because the handling agent doesn’t have the right information at its disposal.

One possible solution, according to technology firm Accelya, is to use blockchains. Blockchain technology allows companies to keep shipment records that include many data points, from shipping location to size and weight, says Accelya analyst, Sandeep Fernandes. Each shipment, or even each item within a shipment, could be tracked at this level of detail.

Blockchains also mean decentralised data. The information is stored across multiple locations, making it impossible for a single person to tamper with records.

Air cargo carriers can investigate incidents with full confidence in the data they’re reviewing. It could also help improve packing/shipment methods and route efficiency.

One blockchain developer, Hyperledger Foundation, is hoping to use the technology’s potential to make temperature-control easier for air cargo. Using its blockchain framework Hyperledger Sawtooth, sensors could be set up around a plane’s holding area to monitor internal conditions, as well as temperature, humidity, location, motion and shock, all of which can affect the integrity of perishables.

Using blockchain would also necessitate moving from manual paper-based airway bills as the right data have to be entered electronically at the very start of the chain.