Coronavirus: importers warn Hong Kong consumers that fruits, vegetables and seafood flown into city will soon cost more amid air freight struggles

Denise Tsang

Consumers must brace for more expensive fruits, vegetables and seafood flown into Hong Kong, with importers warning they face unpredictable air freight services as the coronavirus pandemic rages.

Importers said on Thursday there was increasing uncertainty over cargo flights in April and May following severe cuts in passenger services to areas such as Japan, Europe and North Africa, from where fresh and fragile food was flown in.

With lockdowns in various parts of the world after outbreaks of Covid-19, fruit supplies from Spain, Italy, Australia and North Africa were disrupted earlier this month, they said.

Airlines worldwide have grounded most of their passenger flights. Photo: Sam Tsang

An importer said shipments by air would need to use cargo planes, where space was in short supply, for grapes, blueberries, strawberries and plums, which were usually carried on passenger flights from Australia, Africa and Europe.

“Air space is harder to get and more expensive than before,” said a Hong Kong fruit wholesaler who gave his name as Lai. “Even if we are willing to pay a premium, we do not necessarily get any space.”

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A case in point was a batch of berries from North Africa, which had to be sent via London to Hong Kong, he said. The trade-off was an extra 30 per cent cost for freight forwarding, Lai added.

“We will raise wholesale prices on berries by 20 per cent next week,” he said.

Hong Kong was the world’s No 1 high-value air cargo hub, handling the most freight in 2018 at 5 million tonnes, ahead of Shanghai, Incheon and Dubai airports, according to statistics released by the Census and Statistics Department in January.

Airlines worldwide have broadly been forced to ground passenger planes as Asian countries, the United States and European nations move to minimise contagion risks through lockdowns.

The coronavirus has infected more than 457,000 people and claimed 20,000 lives globally.

At least 65 airlines have cut passenger flights by roughly 95 per cent. For example, Cathay Pacific Airways and its subsidiary Cathay Dragon cut flights by 96 per cent in April and May.

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But Hong Kong’s flagship carrier said it would operate charter services and certain suspended passenger routes purely for air freight to meet demand from cargo customers.

“April is full of uncertainty,” said Dennis Tokuaki Wu, who imports Japanese food. “Up to Friday, there are still cargo flights from Tokyo and Osaka, but we fear the flights will be reduced from next week on weaker demand. We are discussing plan B.”

He urgently met a group of his counterparts on Thursday, with the biggest concern being how to ensure steady supplies of fresh fish for sashimi, seafood like scallops and prawns, and high-end fruits and vegetables.

Wu said the worst situation would mean limited cargo flights, leading to higher transport costs and consumers paying more for high-end food.

He assured Hong Kong consumers that they should not panic about Japanese food supplies, with the most shipped by sea.

Hong Kong is the largest market for Japanese agricultural products and has the biggest number of Japanese restaurants outside the country.

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Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said the pandemic had already affected food supply in his sector.

The industry faced revisions on shipments scheduled from European countries and flight cuts meant logistics costs had soared.

For Wong, who relies more on shipments by sea, logistic costs for imported goods and ingredients had recently risen by not more than 5 per cent on average.

But he estimated a sharper rise in logistics costs, at 20-30 per cent, for those who needed to import smaller amounts of goods such as wine and frozen products by air from Europe.

He said the cost increases could be shared between importers, distributors, restaurants and consumers.

He added that a Malaysian supplier of evaporated milk warned him that the country might suddenly introduce export regulations because of the outbreak and asked him to order a larger amount in advance.

“If part of the global food supply chain is broken, then it will affect supply internationally,” he said.

Noting 96 per cent of the food in Hong Kong was imported from mainland China and overseas, Wong said the sector cared deeply about supply sources and logistics.

“We have to monitor them daily,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kanis Leung

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