Asia’s Storm Front

As the last cobwebs of jet lag release their hold, here’s a recap from my weeklong trip to Asia in November.

It was a trip that almost didn’t happen. Intended to be a two-week mission involving a two-state delegation from Oregon and Washington, various factors conspired to reduce it to a one-product, one-state, eight-day, three-city whirlwind. And “whirlwind” also comes closest to describing the massive Filipino typhoon that nearly canceled the effort. Only the typhoon’s last-minute shift to a southerly course, away from Manila, allowed a few of us the chance to make it to Manila to begin the trip on Nov. 9.

Amazingly, there was virtually no evidence in Manila of the devastation caused by the typhoon in the central and southern islands of the Philippines. There was plenty of coverage on CNN and the BBC via cable TV, but I expect local coverage was closer to the events and focused on the thousands of people affected.

With most cell phone towers down, roads and bridges out and airports closed, communications were extremely difficult. In this nation of close family ties, the agony of uncertainty was obvious as we asked our local hosts about the storm’s impact on them, their families and friends.

Although our visit was ultimately successful and we moved on to Vietnam and Taiwan, I must say that discussing the marketing of potatoes — not your everyday subject of conversation and perhaps not the most glamorous of commodities — can be pretty mundane. But as a basic food and one that can be stored under pretty simple conditions for more than a year (remember the old root cellar), there was significant interest.

Considering we were there at all given the typhoon and its aftermath, it was somewhat remarkable that we were received with an extra helping of courtesy and appreciation — perhaps as a welcome diversion.

Over the years, one of the most important elements of my work has been the constant reminder of how little any of us really know about how things work. For example, I’ve often heard it said that “if you’ve seen one port, you’ve seen one port,” the implication being that, while ports are the same in essence, they’re very different in their details. Nothing could illustrate this better than our visit to a container terminal in Vietnam.

Food safety and the integrity of the supply chain, especially all elements of the cold chain, have attained an ever-higher level of importance as food has become a more globally traded product sector. Although potatoes aren’t typically associated with refrigeration, they are shipped under “chill” conditions to keep them fresher longer. With this in mind, we arranged a look at the cold chain process in Vietnam, including a tour of a container terminal and a visit to an off-dock cold storage facility.

Although we didn’t expect to see as modern and efficient an operation as one would find in Japan or Singapore, the Vietnamese terminal we visited appeared to be fairly typical of similar facilities in developing countries: a bit congested, mostly automated, with more people than may be necessary, but basically running smoothly.

Our surprise came at the end of our visit when we stopped to look at the reefer area. Although there were a large number of reefer units that appeared to be in good order, there was no cold storage building in evidence. At a loading operation we looked in on, frozen shrimp was being transloaded from a truck — whose reefer unit was off — to a 40-foot refrigerated container sitting on the ground.

The container hadn’t been “pre-tripped,” and the reefer unit also was off. The outside temperature was in the mid- to high 80s, and loading, which had been occurring for more than an hour, was far from complete. The truck and the container were very warm inside.

We’re clearly not all at the same stage. The terminal staff saw nothing amiss with their process. Maybe they were correct, but maybe some of those shrimp were about to go bad from the heat. Who would know and how would anyone find out? No one from the shipper or consignee was watching. The process was the standard operating procedure, so why worry?

Like many in Manila, I felt my own agony of uncertainty. Would someone, somewhere become ill from those shrimp? I’ll never know. There remains much to be done: relief work in the Philippines, improved processes in Vietnam. We all must do our part.

Barry Horowitz is principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232 or at barryh@cms-cs.com.

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