Fast Food for Global Gourmets

June 11th, 2013 - Transporting fresh foods around the world is a delicate balancing act.

On a typical Monday, Denis Hamon, head of Paris Gastronomy Distribution in France, might take an order for three boxes of his high-end oysters from famed restaurant L'Atelier Joël Robuchon, located almost ten thousand kilometers away in Hong Kong.

Hamon dispatches the oysters from France's Atlantic coast to a refrigerated warehouse in the Rungis food market on the outskirts of Paris. Then, early Tuesday morning, the oysters leave the warehouse by lorry for Charles de Gaulle airport. They catch the first flight to Hong Kong, arriving at the restaurant Wednesday.

“We have to move incredibly fast,” says Hamon, who exports a menu of over 30,000 traditional French products ranging from cheese to asparagus and andouillette sausages to destinations in mainly Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Food is increasingly moving around the world, driven by the appetite of consumers for delicacies from distant places. But transporting food to other countries can be a complex challenge combining food safety with the need for speed and reactivity.

“My job sometimes feels like a tightrope act,” says Hamon, whose Rungis-based company serves clients including Michelin-starred restaurants and supermarket chains. In any event, traceability and security of food must be assured, notes Patrick Allais, manager of the Rungis branch of SDV France that handles logistics for Paris Gastronomy Distribution.

Last year, SDV transported some 12,000 tons of foodstuffs from its warehouse in the heart of Rungis, the world's largest wholesale food market.

Spanning a 5,600 square-metre zone at temperatures ranging from two to four degrees celsius and 400 square meters at temperatures of between minus 18 degrees and minus 25 degrees, the warehouses preserves the most fragile foods. Its ten loading and unloading docks with outside platforms ensure food safety in an airtight environment. SDV can pack and label foods in its warehouse, as well as carry out quality controls. The food is then transported to Charles de Gaulle airport in temperature-controlled lorries. Like many perishable food exporters, Paris Gastronomy Distribution transports most of its products by airplane, especially fragile products such as salads or oysters. Some fruits, cheeses and cooked meats, however, can travel by ship in refrigerated reefer containers, Allais adds.

These containers ship food at various temperatures – minus 25 degrees Celsius for frozen foods, around 16 degrees Celsius for chocolate, wine and patisserie, eight degrees Celsius for fruits and vegetables and four degrees for dairy products and meat as well as for seafood.

Hamon says one of the biggest threats to his food-exporting business comes from rising government protectionism following food crises such as mad-cow disease or fears about food contamination from bacteria such as listeria. He cites import rules in the U.S. banning raw-milk cheeses, including camembert, unless they have been ripened for more than 60 days as an example.

The biggest risk, however, says Hamon, is that the food reaches its destination late or spoiled. Reasons ranging from refrigerator breakdown to delays to flights and shipments can all threaten even the most meticulously-planned delivery.

Hamon likes to tell the story of François Vatel, chef to Louis XIV of France, who reportedly impaled himself because his order of oysters did not arrive on time. “I wouldn't go that far,” Hamon smiles, “but we do work under tremendous pressure.”

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