x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fresh goats' milk in the UAE? Here's how

The UAE relies on imported food but getting perishable produce here before it is inedible is no easy feat. Some stores deal directly with farmers, others use a tightly controlled 'chill chain' of distribution to ensure consumers get what they want year-round.

Shaun Swart, fresh produce buyer for Spinneys, oversees berries flown in from as far as the US. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Shaun Swart, fresh produce buyer for Spinneys, oversees berries flown in from as far as the US. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

The UAE relies on imported food but getting perishable produce here before it is inedible is no easy feat. Some stores deal directly with farmers, others use a tightly controlled 'chill chain' of distribution to ensure consumers get what they want year-round.

It's 6pm and as the sun slowly fades, farmer Thomas Erberharter milks his goats in a wooden barn 1,000 metres above sea level in Austria's Alpbach valley.

While the Toggenburg goats will spend the next day grazing freely on grass, wild flowers and herbs on a 45-degree mountain slope, their fresh organic milk will travel directly to the UAE, almost 5,000 kilometres away.

Within four hours of milking, the milk has been heat-treated then cooled in natural spring water, packed into milk bottles and labelled.

At 2pm the next day, the 40-year-old farmer drives the milk bottles in a refrigerated van 167kms to Munich Airport in Germany, where they are loaded on to the 10pm flight to Dubai.

Arriving in the early hours of the morning, the milk spends three hours clearing customs before being taken by van to the Organic Foods and Cafe warehouse, then distributed to one of the brand's three stores - hitting the shelves just 36 hours after the goats were milked.

"It's in the farmer's and my interest to get it as soon as possible so that we have little spoilage," says Nils El Accad, chief executive of Organic Foods and Cafe. "If we dilly-dallied we would end up paying in wastage, so we want the fastest route."

Such is the UAE's reliance on imported goods that organic fresh goats' milk is just one of millions of groceries imported every month.

In 2010, Dubai imported 85 per cent of its food - almost 5.7 million tonnes - from 163 countries.

Go to any supermarket and you will find fresh yoghurts from Europe, fresh meat from Australia and fruit and vegetables from Africa or the United States.

The food we eat is international, but how this perishable produce reaches the shops in time for the consumer to buy it and keep it in the fridge for a few days before consuming it is a great logistical feat.

While the organic goats' milk is a perfect example of the speed at which this process can happen, it is a small scale operation involving only 100 half-litre bottles a week.

On a mass-market scale, supermarkets depend on a tightly controlled network that links the farmer or manufacturer to the consumer through a series of buying agents, distributors and the airlines that fly the goods.

The only way to get fresh produce here quick enough for residents to eat is via the air.

"Anything with a shelf life of 60 days or less has to be flown in to sell the products," says Jerry Raju Thomas, managing director of JRT Global, a food trade and distribution company that delivers 1.5 tonnes of produce to the UAE every day.

Experts estimate flying groceries here doubles the price the consumer pays compared with sea shipments, which add between 15 to 17 per cent.

But in a nation where the average consumer expects the freshest produce and where expatriates expect their favourite brands from back home, suppliers go above and beyond to ensure we get what we want.

"Let's say you want wagyu beef from Brazil with a 20-day shelf life," Mr Thomas says. "By the time it's been sourced by our agent in Brazil, passed the health tests there, received approval for shipment from the municipality here and then been flown in, processed by customs and taken to our Dubai warehouse in Umm Ramool then distributed to a supermarket, it only has 15 days left. This is the whole game; you have to plan everything because you want the maximum shelf life for the customers."

Take strawberries grown in California by Driscoll's and shipped 11,500km to Spinneys in the UAE - a process that takes three and a half days from picking to shelf.

The fruit is handpicked in the morning before going through a day-long post harvest treatment that involves inspection, washing and packing. The packs are then refrigerated to cool them to the optimal storage temperature to maximise their shelf life.

The berries are then driven by truck to Los Angeles, where they put on a 16-hour direct flight to the UAE, landing in the evening. After clearing Dubai Municipality checks, they are taken to the supermarket chain's warehouse in Al Aweer, processed and distributed to the store by noon the next day. They follow a similar route through Abu Dhabi.

"Freshness is key, so we only associate with top quality farmers," says Shaun Swart, the fresh produce buyer for Spinneys.

Mr Swart says the berries will last a week on supermarket shelves here rather than the two they would in their US home because of the journey they have to make.

This is key. While local produce can be picked in the morning and sold in the supermarket that evening, minimising the risk of spoiling along the way, food flown in is extremely vulnerable.

"No produce is built for air freight because the handling of the product is not ideal in any way. Even though the food is packed very nicely in air-controlled containers, things move around due to turbulence," Mr Swart says.

To ensure produce reaches its destination in near-perfect condition, retailers must ensure it is chilled at a consistent temperature.

"For berries, the biggest issue is mould," Mr Swart says. "They need to be kept at a constant temperature but if the temperature fluctuation is too big - for example, from 1°C to 8°C for a couple of hours and then back to 5°C - the product starts sweating and that's when mould starts occurring.

"Luckily we pick it up at our warehouse because we check every single shipment that comes in and products like that are rejected and not sent to stores."

This chill chain is also vitally important for Alf Heaney, managing director of JHF limited in the UK, which supplies fresh deli items to Spinneys. This includes cheese, brands such as Rachel's Organic yoghurts, fresh bread and fresh fish.

"The shortest shelf life we do is seven days and because the life is so critical, the goods come to us at 7am and are dispatched on a flight the same day," Mr Heaney says.

To ensure the chill chain is preserved, Mr Heaney's staff receive the goods from the manufacturers in a refrigerated van. They apply Arabic ingredient labels and stamp the production date and expiry code on every product in a refrigerated area then load them into airline-ready containers that are packed in ice and insulation.

"We target overnight flights that are direct and arrive at the coolest part of the day, which is morning time," Mr Heaney says.

"The temperature control of the product is such that we add a data logger - like a temperature control check - that triggers the minute the goods leave our warehouse.

"It records the temperature of the consignment every 30 minutes from the time it leaves the warehouse until arrival in the UAE.

"At the Spinneys warehouse, staff download the history of the consignment from the logger,so we'd know if there was any inconsistency in the chill chain."

But with so many handlers involved in the delivery of perishable items to the UAE, surely things can go wrong, such as delayed or cancelled flights?

"It does happen," Mr Swart says. "If the food is travelling on a commercial flight, passengers come first even if we've pre-booked space in the cargo hold. If there's too much luggage, that product gets offloaded and stored in a cooler until the next available flight.

"We get alerted and may say, 'don't send it', because the delay has reduced the shelf life by one and a half days."

For Mr Accad working directly with small family-run businesses can cause all manner of problems.

"You get severe rain that kills the crop so there's no lettuce this week or the next. There might be traffic jams or a big accident or a shortage of diesel in Uganda so they can't get the pineapples to the airport."

With some products only sourced by local distributors rather than individual supermarket chains, a shortage in one store can indicate a shortage across the UAE.

While some experts maintain these shortages are down to poor planning by the local agents, Mr Thomas says manufacturers can also miscalculate their own production levels.

"They have a forecast, so for example when I order 440 cartons of rainbow vermicelli, they may say we only have 96 cartons," he explains.

The fact that consumers expect fresh produce to be available whatever the season means retailers need to source fruit and vegetables from different parts of the world at different times to meet demand.

"Dubai is in a very fortunate position where we don't have seasons," Mr Swart says. "If you live in South Africa, the UK or the US, you have a strawberry season, a stone-fruit season and an avocado season. Here we're very spoilt because we manage to get the products all year round."

But Mr Accad thinks consumers can be unrealistic with their expectations.

"We have people saying, 'you don't have pomegranates' and we'll ask, 'do you realise the pomegranate season is only a couple of months a year?'. We try to get them from three different countries to have three different seasons but this concept of broccoli 12 months a year is not normal - but it's expected."

Let's not forget the carbon footprint of the food we eat on a daily basis, particularly when you consider that some produce literally flies halfway around the world for our consumption.

For Mr Accad, working for a brand that only sources organic and biodynamic produce, he mainly sources from countries that fall within a three-hour flight radius, such as Egypt and India, using farmers that can offset their carbon footprint through eco-friendly practices.

But to meet demand, he also sources pineapples from Uganda and lettuce from Sri Lanka - both within a five-hour radius - as well as lettuce, beetroot, spinach and broccoli from South Africa, his farthest supplier.

However, Mr Accad can beat conventional suppliers on delivery time because he deals directly with the farms and does not use the services of distributors or clearing warehouses to import goods.

At Mr Eberharter's farm in Austria, for example, it is the farmer himself who processes the milk and delivers it to the airport.

"You may pay more for our milk, but we can beat a conventional goats' milk dairy by four days," he says.

You can't get much fresher than that.