First it was the port strikes, now it’s a global pandemic. French agriculture exporters contribute significantly to the growth in the global reefer market, with producers of apples, pears and shallots among those who see opportunities in the U.S. and other markets.
Over the past five years, the volume of France’s fresh fruit and vegetable exports to the U.S. grew by approximately 19 percent (and 18 percent in value).
A program to promote France’s fresh fruits and vegetables, co-financed by the European Union and INTERFEL, a private French fruit and vegetable inter-professional association, aims to capitalize on growth prospects for French exports of fresh fruits and vegetables, despite the pandemic. The program’s goal is to raise awareness and interest about fruits and vegetables produced in Europe, specifically France, which takes pride in its production methods and product diversity.
The challenges for France’s exporters started in December, when a country-wide transport strike snarled road and rail networks for several months, as well as cargo movement at France’s Port of Le Havre, the country’s largest container port, which forced exporters to divert containers to ports in neighboring countries.
Gerard Tessier, export manager at Blue Whale, a leading fruit producer and France’s number one apple exporter, was eager to introduce Angelys pears, a new variety, to the U.S. market. However, disruptions at Le Havre resulted in the fruit being too ripe to ship, and caused Tessier to miss a narrow window of opportunity.
“We don’t want to take a chance and ship the pears, and have them arrive over ripe in the U.S. So, we’ll have to sell them in France instead,” he said in late January.
In response to the Port of Le Havre being unavailable, part of Blue Whale’s reefer exports were diverted to Spain’s Port of Barcelona.
It ended up costing more, “but at least we were able to ship our products,” said Tessier.
Pascal Jaouen, director of French Produce Trading, opted to divert reefer exports to the Port of Antwerp in Belgium and Dunkerque in northern France as alternatives to Le Havre.
Traditional French shallots are an important export for Jaouen—and for France. The country is the largest shallot producer in Europe, with 90 percent of production located in Brittany and the Loire Valley.
The Traditional French shallot is grown from a bulb. It is distinctly different than the hybrid seed-grown shallots that are grown in the Netherlands and other countries. The Traditional French shallot is registered under the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and Jaouen and major growers such as Prince de Bretagne are keen on introducing them to more foreign consumers.
Due to the strike, Jaouen suspended shallot shipments to Japan because of the longer sailing time, but was able to maintain export shipments to from France to New York, which typically take 7-9 days.
Now, French perishables exporters and the entire global food supply chain are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
In March, the initial impacts of the outbreak appeared at major Chinese seaports. Reefer containers piled up at the ports and all available reefer plugs at the terminals were utilized. Exporters in the U.S. who needed empty reefer containers to move their perishables were left without access to equipment.
Meanwhile, the squeeze on the food supply chain in the U.S. is a daily topic for mainstream news. Shelves are bare. Consumers are frustrated. The logistics sector is stepping up to the plate and is working non-stop to meet demand and replenish inventory.
We’re living one of the worst-case supply chain disruptions in decades.