IT'S THE BEST of times and the worst of times for the produce industry. First the good news: Americans are focused on eating healthy meals nowadays. Reducing consumers' collective waistline and fending off illness through proper diet has prompted many people to eat better. And that includes more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Now the bad news: Health scares today include potential tampering with produce shipments as well as dealing with e coli and related threats. There is also a small but growing movement to "buy local." Such a practice falls in line with the goal of sustainability because less energy is used to transport produce from distant states to local grocery stores; for example, from California or Florida to New York and New Jersey.
While shippers of produce benefit from the good news, they really can't solve all of the issues of the bad news. But they can do their part to improve the industry by tuning up the supply chain.
"I think the keys to success in the supply chain are communication as well as the effectiveness and efficiency of the value chain," says Bud Floyd, vice president of marketing for Perishable Business at C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., a third-party logistics (3PL) company in Eden Prairie, MN.
"We need to have open architecture as it relates to system visibility that I can see end to end-not deal with just one element of the value chain, but all its opportunities."
To provide guidance for greater efficiency in the supply chain, the transportation task force of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) has released a report on Best Practices. It is a roadmap to improvement.
And improvement is certainly needed throughout the supply chain. Today's challenges range from a communications gap and scattered distribution patterns to loading and unloading inefficiencies.
The communication gap that currently exists is both an internal and an external one. The trend is to have fewer employees perform more tasks outside their area of expertise, resulting in internal disorder. In the worst cases, employees compete against one another through the lure of bonuses and incentives that do more to create friction rather than harmony.
When goods are shipped, experts say there is sometimes a "get it done quickly" mentality among workers to meet the timetable of the receiver. Another attitude: "If it doesn't affect me, it doesn't affect my organization." Sloppiness is surely to result and a lot of finger pointing (unsupported by facts or data) takes place when issues arise further down the supply chain. This domino effect does little to foster a spirit of cooperation between partners.
Floyd maintains that adding to the breakdown are the habits of those at the top; namely, buyers who do not communicate their activities to other buyers. Most do not currently operate their systems online, compounding the problem even further.
In a typical scenario, one company might have three pallets of product to ship while another has five pallets of something else that's fully compatible. Both are unaware of this fact, allowing the potentially overlapping products to find their way into stores on separate trucks.
In a traditional grocery situation, buyers not typically located at the distribution centers use transportation brokers, explained Michael Coonan, group logistics manager for Ryder System Inc., a Miami-based provider of transportation, logistics and supply chain management solutions. Their job is to find independent trucking operators who are based in the area of the produce to load and haul the goods.
The problem that occurs is that remote produce areas are challenging to service and there are usually few loads going back into the area. Seasonal growing in these areas also contributes to inadequate trucking capacity.