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Top US Shippers: Food imports spike on shift to in-home dining, online groceries
American Shipper
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Consumer dining habits drastically changed import and export flows of containerized foodstuffs in 2020, and food shippers and their logistics providers expect many of those habits to become permanent even after COVID-19 vaccinations allow a return to restaurants and other dining venues.

Total US foodstuffs trade grew 9.4 percent to more than 2.8 million TEU last year, according to PIERS, a sister company of within IHS Markit. Imports, which represent a little less than two-thirds of the total trade, grew 17.3 percent during the year, while exports were essentially flat, slipping 0.7 percent from 2019.

As dining out plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, US consumers increased their grocery purchases of everything from produce, dry goods, pantry staples, and frozen foods to food for livestock and pets.

Widespread import growth was led by animal feed, volumes of which jumped 69.3 percent year-over-year; prepared meats and fish, such as canned tuna, up 46.6 percent; sugars and confectionary, up 38.3 percent; prepared veges, fruits, and nuts, up 33.2 percent; and prepared cereals, flours, starches, and milk, up 31.8 percent. Import growth was also fairly even among major US container ports, with all 14 of the busiest gateways for containerized foodstuffs registering increases and 10 of those ports recording double-digit percentage growth.

According to a logistics provider based on the US East Coast, import volumes of French fries and frozen veges from Europe and South America grew substantially last year, and he doesn’t expect much tapering off this year.

At the same time, online grocery shopping also surged, both for curbside pickup and delivery by third parties, another tr that is expected to continue going forward.

Two indepent cold storage operators located in New Jersey, one of which also offers repacking services for fresh food imports, said they have been handling considerably more meal kits and small-format packaging for direct-to-consumer orders and expect that to continue in 2021.

A California-based food industry utive told that although more restaurant and hospitality dining is reing across the US due to rising vaccination rates, consumers will continue eating more meals at home than they did prior to last year.

“People have invested in their homes — their kitchens, home offices, outdoor living areas — and they’ve become more accustomed to preparing meals at home,” she said. “The convenience of online shopping is also here to stay and is contributing to eating at home instead of going out.”

Meanwhile, a former food service utive and consultant to the grocery sector said grocers will continue to pursue SKU rationalization to keep costs down. Major food and beverage manufacturers including Mondelez, Kraft Heinz, and Coca-Cola announced substantial product trimming last year to help stabilize production and supply amid disruption and higher transportation prices.

“Prior to the pandemic, consumers would typically see an array of choices for a single product. Think of how many kinds of yogurt were available previously,” the consultant remarked.

On the export side, strong growth in shipments of cocoa and chocolate (up 39.3 percent), sugars and confectionary (up 38.1 percent), and cereals and flours (up 31.9 percent) was offset by steep declines in miscellaneous edible preparations (down 53.7 percent) and prepared meat and fish (9.2 percent). However, industry observers attribute the declines in large part to strong domestic demand for these products, rather than dwindling demand overseas.

Among the top US ports for containerized food exports, six registered a decrease in volumes in 2020, with the largest s occurring at the Florida ports of West Palm Beach (down 59.3 percent), Miami (down 26 percent), and Everglades (down 25.9 percent).

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Brilliant Group Logistics INC.
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