Cathay Pacific Cargo ships Vietnam’s first pomelo exports to the US

The tropical fruit is the seventh permitted into the US market from Vietnam

Air cargo is a vital tool in linking products to markets, and when either the product or the market is new, it becomes even more significant. Take the Vietnamese pomelo and the US. In 2021, the Department of Agriculture granted an export licence for pomelos, only the seventh fruit grown in Vietnam to be permitted into the country.

Cathay Pacific Cargo was an integral link in establishing this new trade deal, flying the first shipments of green pomelos from Ben Tre province in the Mekong Delta, south of Ho Chi Minh City, to the US, working with forwarder Hoang Ha. Previously, Cathay was the first carrier to fly in star apples and mangoes when those licences were granted.

Green pomelos waiting to be loaded into their ULD
Green pomelos waiting to be loaded into their ULD

‘It’s always exciting to demonstrate the positive impact of air cargo to support new trade initiatives like this,’ says GM Cargo Commercial George Edmunds. ‘We’re delighted to have carried Vietnam’s first pomelos to the US, following on from our facilitation of the trade in star apples and mangoes, and to open a new transpacific trade flow, ensuring this fruit gets to market quickly and in top condition.’

Growing market for tropical fruit

The US’ significant Vietnamese population and East Asian diaspora are fuelling its status as the largest importer of tropical fruit in the world, with US$4bn-worth imported in 2020.

While pomelos are grown throughout Vietnam, the green pomelo from Ben Tre, which has a year-round season, is widely regarded as the best, with its thin peel and sweet reddish-pink flesh. However, conquering new export markets is not quite as simple as picking fruit and loading it on a plane.

Shipper Chánh Thu Fruit Import-Export Group Joint Stock Company has been working on an efficient process to get the citrus fruit ready for the US market for more than five years . Chánh Thu has more than 20 years’ experience in exporting fresh and frozen fruits to 10 export markets, including the US and Australia, which have very stringent import requirements for agricultural and horticultural imports.

Rigorous import requirements

The company’s previous successes include being first to export mangoes and rambutans to the US so the team understands what is needed. Among the many requirements that must be met, Vietnamese pomelo farms and processing facilities must be registered with the Plant Protection Department and the US Animal and Plant Health Quarantine (APHIS), with mandatory inspections and monitoring throughout the year. The farms must also adhere to strict processes around planting, harvesting and handling.

Pomelo packing factories, like Chánh Thu’s 20,000sqm facility, must also have appropriate practices in place to eliminate pests, such as fruit flies and certain types of fungi. In the case of pomelo exports to the US, requirements include the need for the fruit to be irradiated to receive a phytosanitary certificate.

Green pomelos are grown across Vietnam, but those from Ben Tre are thought to be the best
Green pomelos are grown across Vietnam, but those from Ben Tre are thought to be the best

Shipment containers must then be sealed and put into an AKE container, which can only be loaded onto a wide-body aircraft. The flight schedule must also match the irradiation schedule – fruits treated in the morning need to be tendered to the warehouse that afternoon, ready for shipment. This is so the fruit can get to market before it is past its peak, which is a target time of between one and three days.

Fleet, frequency and the Fresh LIFT solution

This is where Cathay Pacific Cargo’s flight fleet and frequencies come into play. ‘Long delays can be disastrous for perishable shipments like this,’ says Siddhant Iyer, Regional Head of Cargo for SE Asia. ‘Therefore, having the option of multiple daily flights with short connections, as well as protection plans in the case of any misconnections, is critical.

‘We were honoured to participate in this landmark occasion and to be the preferred partner at the start of this new venture.’ The inaugural shipments were distributed across various ports on our freighter network, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston using our Fresh LIFT solution, as the fruit needs to be kept at a low temperature after packing. We were also glad to provide one our containers for the ceremony.

The photocall at the ceremony to celebrate the first shipment
The photocall at the ceremony to celebrate the first shipment

The news of this export success was big news in Vietnam, with a special ceremony attended by the Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the provincial People’s Committee to see off the first shipments at the end of November.

The final marketplace for the green pomelos will be Asian supermarkets at first, but Chánh Thu believes that the Ben Tre green pomelo’s fragrance and flavour has potential for much wider appeal. ‘Chánh Thu’s goal is to bring Vietnamese pomelos into large US supermarket chains, such as Costco and Walmart,’ says General Director Ngô Tường Vy.

With a good product and an enthusiastic new market, why not think big?


Lead image: The first pomelos from Ben Tre in their ULD heading to the airport