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A Guide to Importing Perishables: A Coffee Tale

The rich aroma of your morning coffee masks a complex global journey. To reach your cup, those beans have traveled thousands of miles, crossing oceans and continents. How they maintain their freshness throughout this trek lies in the art and science of shipping perishable food.

In this article, we’ll explain how to ship perishable food, using coffee as a guiding example. From understanding the key coffee-growing regions to navigating regulatory hurdles and selecting the most effective ports for import, we’ll walk you through every step of the process.

Along the way, you’ll discover how MyFBAPrep, a comprehensive solution provider for importing and distributing perishable goods, can be your ideal partner in this and other shipping endeavors.

So, sit back and sip your favorite brew as we embark on this caffeinated voyage.

The coffee regions

Coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world. It grows predominantly near the equator in a regional stretch called the coffee belt, which includes parts of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia.

These regions are blessed with the ideal conditions for coffee cultivation, namely, rich soil, tropical climate, and suitable altitude.

Brazil, Colombia, and Switzerland are the primary coffee exporters to the United States (U.S.). Understanding their regional characteristics is crucial for coffee importers to identify their preferred coffee profile and select the right locations for sourcing.

Brazilian coffee

Known for its large-scale production, Brazilian coffee generates a third of the global coffee supply. Typically harvested in the country’s vast, flat terrain, these beans are popular due to their chocolatey, nutty flavor.

Colombian coffee

Hand-picked in the steep Andean mountains, Colombian coffee is recognized for its smooth, mild taste and bright acidity. This flavor profile is thanks to the country’s perfect balance of warmth and rain.

Swiss coffee

Switzerland has a rich history of coffee consumption and is renowned for its coffee roasting industry, but the country doesn’t actually produce any beans. This is primarily due to its unaccommodating climate (coffee plants thrive in a tropical setting).

However, what Switzerland lacks in coffee production, it makes up for in its mastery of roasting and its impact on the global coffee trade. Swiss coffee companies like Nestlé, for instance, boast significant influence over the market, with their Nespresso and Nescafé brands having gained worldwide recognition.

Additionally, the Swiss Water Process, a chemical-free method of decaffeinating unroasted coffee beans, was invented in Switzerland and is now used around the world.

How to ship perishable food: The coffee import process

Importing coffee is a delicate undertaking that requires great attention to detail at every stage.

In the U.S., three government agencies govern coffee’s journey from foreign farms to American homes:

  1. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
  2. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  3. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Navigating their requirements is mandatory to ensure smooth imports.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

The CBP regulates the entry of all goods entering U.S. borders. For coffee importers, this begins with CBP Form 3461, which serves as an application for the admission of goods.

After a CBP officer authorizes entry, you must file Form 3461, the entry summary, within 10 working days. This document includes details like the items’ value, order of merchandise, and the duties owed. Work with a licensed customs broker who can facilitate this process.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The FDA oversees the safety of all food products entering the U.S.

Importers must submit a Prior Notice to the FDA before their coffee shipments arrive. This notice details the shipment, including the manufacturer, grower, shipper, and importer. It helps the FDA manage and mitigate any potential risks to food safety.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The USDA defends U.S. agriculture from pests and diseases.

As part of their mandate, a phytosanitary certificate from the country of origin must accompany all coffee imports. This certificate assures the coffee is free from quarantine pests, has been properly inspected, and complies with the USDA’s regulations.

Importing also requires meticulous attention to documentation. Necessary documents for bringing in perishables include:

  • A bill of lading, which acts as a receipt for the goods shipped
  • A commercial invoice that details the purchase agreement between the buyer and seller
  • A packing list describing the specifics of the shipment
  • Certificate of origin stating where the coffee beans were grown

Strategic port selection

The port you choose for your coffee shipments will significantly impact the efficiency and cost of your supply chain. You need to consider geographical proximity, logistical convenience, cost-effectiveness, and other critical factors to pick the most strategic entry point.

1. Geographical proximity

Choosing a port geographically close to the coffee’s country of origin can reduce transit times, ensuring your beans arrive as fresh as possible.

For example, suppose you import from South American countries like Brazil or Colombia. In that case, southern U.S. ports like the Port of Houston in Texas or the Port of Miami in Florida might be the most efficient due to their proximity.

2. Infrastructure and handling

Not all ports are equal when it comes to infrastructure and handling capabilities. Some have more experience and better-equipped facilities for dealing with perishable goods like coffee.

Look for ones that have temperature-controlled storage,specialized unloading equipment, and experienced personnel to ensure your coffee is handled correctly and preserves its quality.

3. Import volume and traffic

High-volume ports can process shipments faster due to their size and efficiency, but they also may be busier and more prone to delays as a result.

Conversely, smaller ports may provide more personalized service but lack the infrastructure to handle large volumes of goods. Find a balance that best suits your specific needs.

4. Customs efficiency

The efficiency of a port’s customs procedures greatly influences the time it takes for your coffee to reach the market. Ports with streamlined processes can minimize delays and provide a more predictable import process.

5. Cost considerations

Port charges, including handling and storage fees, can vary significantly from one port to another. Lower port charges could make a more distant port economically viable. Conversely, higher fees might offset the advantages of a geographically closer port. Consider these costs and incorporate them into your overall business model.

6. Trade routes and connectivity

Your choice of port will heavily depend on the established trade routes from the coffee’s country of origin. Look at the port’s connectivity to your ultimate destination as well, whether it be a roastery, warehouse, or distribution center. Efficient inland transportation links can reduce transit times and costs.

7. Risk management

Finally, consider diversifying your port selection as a risk management strategy. Relying solely on one port can leave your business vulnerable to disruptions like strikes, weather events, or increased tariffs. Instead, develop alternatives to provide flexibility and ensure business continuity.

Choosing where to import your coffee is more than a matter of convenience; it’s a strategic decision that affects the success of your overall business venture. By taking the time to review your options and evaluate these factors, you can select a port that supports your business objectives and ensures your coffee beans arrive in the best possible condition.

MyFBAprep can help coffee merchants import and distribute their goods anywhere they need to go. Check out our expansive warehouse network!

Storing and packaging coffee for retail

Shipping is only half the battle; once you’ve received your goods, you must tackle the nuances of storing and packaging those precious beans.

Coffee bean storage

Maintaining coffee’s freshness, flavor, and aroma from source to shelf is crucial for its retail success. To store coffee beans appropriately, you must ensure (and strictly maintain):

  • Temperature control: Coffee beans are best stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. While they don’t require refrigeration, excessive heat can accelerate the degradation of the beans, so your storage facility needs to maintain a stable, cool temperature.
  • Moisture management: Moisture is the enemy of coffee’s freshness. Exposure to moisture can lead to mold growth or cause the beans to deteriorate rapidly. As such, it’s crucial to keep your storage facility dry and free of dampness.
  • Air-tight storage: Coffee beans are also sensitive to air exposure, as oxygen can cause them to oxidize and lose their flavor. Store coffee in airtight containers to prevent this spoilage.

Packaging coffee for retail

Your coffee’s packaging is what makes you stand out from the competition, but style isn’t your only concern. When bagging beans for retail, factor in the following elements as well:

  • Protective packaging: Of foremost consideration is the packaging’s design, which must protect the beans from external elements like light, air, and moisture. Materials such as foil-lined bags with one-way valves are commonly used since they allow carbon dioxide (which the beans emit after roasting) to escape without letting in air.
  • Size: The size of your coffee packaging affects the freshness of your product as well. A smaller size means the product is likely to be consumed faster, which ensures the coffee is enjoyed at peak freshness.
  • Informative labels: In today’s consumer-conscious market, people want to know the particulars of what they’re buying. Shoppers appreciate detailed labels with information about the origin, roast date, flavor profile, and brewing recommendations — all of which boost your brand’s credibility as well.
  • Branding: The packaging is a direct reflection of your brand. A strong design can attract customers and make your product stand out on the shelves. Consider working with a professional designer to create functional and visually appealing packaging.

Wrapping up — Overcome import challenges with MyFBAPrep

Importing coffee can be daunting, but help is readily available.

As a comprehensive logistics provider, MyFBAPrep can be your reliable partner for importing and distributing perishable goods.

We have the expertise to handle every aspect of the process, from managing inventory to ensuring regulatory compliance. Our global warehousing locations allow us to receive inventory directly from your suppliers, whether they’re located in Brazil, Colombia, Switzerland, or anywhere else in the world.

Beyond importing, we offer additional services tailored specifically to coffee sellers, ranging from creating variety packs to adding labels for different flavors and showcasing holiday packaging.

With MyFBAPrep’s robust services, you can avoid the common pitfalls of coffee importing and ensure your goods reach their destination in pristine condition, ready to be enjoyed. So, explore our services and let’s brew success together.