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Delivering the goods: An inside look at Bermuda’s food supply chain

Six weeks. That’s one estimate of how long Bermuda’s food supply would last without cargo ships and aircraft bringing goods in.

The Royal Gazette learned this startling figure while speaking with a range of people in the shipping industry.

Many residents take for granted that there will be a bag of lettuce on the shelf or a box of cereal in the grocery aisle, however we are dependant on it first travelling thousands of miles and going through many different hands.

The reality is, we cannot grow enough food on Island to supply our population.

Peter Aldrich CEO and general manager of Stevedoring Services said: “When something goes wrong in the supply chain you can definitely see the shelves of the supermarkets start to empty quickly. The perishable goods go first.”

He estimated that without cargo ships, Bermuda would have a six-week supply of food.

“The perishable goods would be gone in about two weeks,” he said. “I have heard some people estimate we could last for four weeks. I prefer to be an optimist, but you might have panic-buying and it would disappear even faster. In today’s industry everything is pretty much done on a just-in-time inventory, especially for fresh and perishable goods.”

The true fragility of Bermuda’s access to food was highlighted last October when Hurricane Sandy struck the American East Coast. Signs went up in Bermuda grocery stores almost immediately, apologising for the lack of fresh food. One woman was overheard complaining: “It’s not like it struck Bermuda.”

“The irony is that had Hurricane Sandy struck Bermuda as a Category One hurricane — what it was when it went by us it would have affected us less than what took place,” said Willie Forbes vice president of Bermuda Forwarders.

Bermuda was deeply impacted because almost all our freight is shipped from only three ports in the United States Elizabeth and Salem, New Jersey and Jacksonville, Florida on three regular cargo ships, the M/V

Oleander, the M/V

Somers Isle and the M/V

Bermuda Islander.

After the storm, both New Jersey ports were crippled for several weeks. Some of the piers were damaged, and many warehouses and other shipping buildings were underwater due to flooding, and there was no electricity.

The temporary port shut down caused by Hurricane Sandy was an unprecedented occasion, but Mr Forbes said Bermuda shipping is frequently impacted by winter storms.

“These storms cover a much larger area than hurricanes and are less predictable,” he said. “This time of year our container ships stagger through massive seas and still manage to get the goods to the Island. If there are heroes in our industry it is the sailors at sea and officers and crew of the three little ships that serve Bermuda. They go through hell to get here. For the most part they manage to stick to their schedule and inevitably sometimes they cannot maintain that schedule. They do what is necessary to recapture their schedule quickly and effectively.”

Joe Simas vice president of Marine Operations at Bermuda International Shipping Line which represents M/V

Somers Isle and the M/V

Bermuda Islander, said it takes about 52 hours to get a product from the warehouse in the United States to the dock in New Jersey and then to a store shelf in Bermuda.

“What happens is a local supplier says I want to ship some produce to Bermuda,” said Mr Simas. “We send a refrigerated container known in the business as a ‘reefer’. We send the container to their warehouse. Then on Saturday or Sunday it is packed up with produce. It is trucked down to our port in New Jersey on Monday. It is loaded and then leaves port on Monday evening. It arrives in Bermuda on Thursday and is cleared through Customs.”

Stevedoring Services unloads the containers with a variety of special equipment including two cranes. A large one was purchased last year at a cost of $3.5 million. They also have several smaller reach-stackers which use curved metal arms to load containers onto trucks.

Dead raccoons or snakes are found in the containers every once in a while, but the real worry is what might leave Bermuda.

“Our containers leaving Bermuda have to be inspected for snails,” said Mr Simas. “A company searches underneath the containers to make sure there are no snails. They don’t have the type of snails we have here, in the United States, and they panic when they see them as they could cause environmental damage.”

Howard Pitcher of Bermuda Container Line, which is responsible for M/V

Oleander, said one of the challenges of the shipping business was keeping the food at the right temperature. Reefers must be kept plugged in and at the right temperature all through the transport process temperatures are checked by engineers every four hours; sometimes repairs are necessary.

Different foods have to be kept at different temperatures. Bananas, for example, have a very specific temperature and cannot be housed with other foods.

“The average container lasts a good six years,” said Mr Pitcher, vice president of BCL’s commercial operations. “We have had no problems with containers going overboard. Many reefers are carried below deck or in the middle so they are protected. We also do dry goods. About a quarter of our containers each week are refrigerated.”

Mr Pitcher has been in the business since 2004, and the reward of the job was knowing that he had played a crucial part in Bermuda’s food supply chain.

“The Island relies heavily on everything getting shipped in,” he said. “So being able to make sure that the supply chain is secure and efficient is satisfying. Every time I go to the grocery store and see the food on the shelves, I can say ‘hey, I helped to make that happen’.”

He said clearly there are people who appreciate what they do, as their Facebook page has almost 800 likes.

“We have a lot of followers on Facebook, and we are just a shipping company,” he said.

Mr Forbes said: “The industry does get into your blood. Once people have been in the industry for more than three or four years they find it difficult to leave. It is exciting and stressful and completely dynamic. It is a thoroughly exciting industry to be involved in and I love it, although I do wipe my brow frequently [due to stress].”

Mr Aldrich said that the shipping industry is an important barometer of the Island’s economy.

“Port activity is a leading indicator of economic strength in a country, not a trailing indicator,” he said. “Payroll tax would be a trailing indicator because it happens at the end of a quarter. We are basically feeding mouths. If our volume drops that means there are fewer feet on the ground in Bermuda.”

He said in December 2007 they suddenly saw a sudden plunge in the volume of goods being imported.

“Everyone was saying the economy was fine,” said Mr Aldrich, “but we could see that it wasn’t. People were beginning to leave the Island. Now, the volume has dropped by ten percent a year for the past three years. The percentage of what’s brought in though, has remained relatively the same.”

About 78 percent of goods imported are food or supermarket products. Five percent of what is brought in are for liquor and alcohol sales the volume has not changed much despite the economic recession.

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Published April 05, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated April 04, 2013 at 7:27 pm)

Delivering the goods: An inside look at Bermuda’s food supply chain

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