All Your Favorite Foods Are Stuck in Transit

Small businesses relying on imported foods face new challenges amid rapidly changing pandemic restrictions and a postal service implosion

A crane lifting a shipping container next to a tall stack of other containers in a shipping yard.

The key to recreating the beloved street food of Ghana at BlackStar Kebab, a 5-year-old Seattle food truck, is a complex blend of 11 spices and groundnuts that owner Priestwick Sackeyfio has shipped from Ghana every few months. He can’t find many of the spices in Seattle and takes pride in supporting a vendor back home. But a shipment of almost $500 worth arrived in New York on June 25 and never made it out of U.S. Customs.

When the former soccer coach (full disclosure: mine, when I was a kid) checked in with Homeland Security on the status of the missing package, they said they didn’t have it, and he should check with the U.S. Postal Service — Which, of course, told him it was at customs. He arranged for a second batch, which also went missing. “I’ll pay duty — whatever it takes,” Sackeyfio said of trying to track them down. The supply he had on hand ran out and he had to close his truck. “I’m going through hell.”

Importing spices and other foods into the U.S. is complicated in the best of times, but the additional challenges from fluctuating lockdowns around the world, political changes in the U.S., and the fading dependability of the American postal service have increased it exponentially.

“In a lot of ways, we’ve had to start from scratch,” said Ethan Frisch of single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel. “The rules changed so quickly and so dramatically.”

When the pandemic hit the U.S., consumer demand skyrocketed, so Burlap & Barrel repackaged the bulk spices previously sold to now-closed restaurants as they tried to get more product, fast. But challenges stymied their efforts. “We just had no idea what we were working within each individual country,” Frisch said, as various governments changed rules multiple times with little warning.

‘We just had no idea what we were working within each individual country,’ Frisch said, as various governments changed rules multiple times with little warning.

The company often helps the smallholding farmers who grow the coveted spices they sell — Guatemalan cardamom, Vietnamese cinnamon, and Egyptian fennel seeds — navigate the entire export and Food and Drug Administration approval to bring them into the U.S.

“Shipping and logistics are the foundation of everything that we do,” Frisch said. But when de facto lockdown stopped all flights to and from the island of Zanzibar — where his company sources black peppercorns, Pemba cloves, nutmeg, and various cinnamon products — it led to an entirely new experience navigating international shipping to get the spices to quarantined American customers.

Ocean freight companies refused to handle any food, even shelf-stable food like spices because they couldn’t make any promises about how long it would take to get to the U.S. Eventually, a worker from the spice co-op escorted two tons of spices by ferry to the Tanzania mainland, including spending a night in the ferry terminal warehouse. In the morning, he dropped it off at the airport — then it disappeared. Instead of getting loaded onto a Turkish Airlines flight, it sat in a cargo area of the Dar Es Salaam airport for a month until Frisch could find it — and even then, only 86 of the 91-piece shipment landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. (Some had gotten separated on a layover and were shipped back to Tanzania.)

Instead of getting loaded onto a Turkish Airlines flight, it sat in a cargo area of the Dar Es Salaam airport for a month before being located — and even then, only 86 of the 91-piece shipment landed at JFK.

Arrival didn’t end the arduous journey, though. Burlap & Barrel normally spends around $15,000 each month with the U.S. Postal Service to ship to customers, so the agency’s recent issues added a costly new wrinkle to the company’s business. They could no longer redirect shipments with mistakes in the address or if someone had moved (which happened a lot during the pandemic). Shipments take longer, and they don’t get tracking information or explanation for the delays. “It’ll say, ‘in transit’ for two weeks, without telling you where it’s in transit or when it’s expected to arrive,” Frisch said.

The delays multiplied the chaos of the early pandemic for Masienda, which sells single-origin corn for nixtamalization and companion products, as their direct-to-consumer shipping went from 8 percent of their business to 60.

Like Frisch, founder Jorge Gaviria struggled to get product into the U.S., navigating the bottleneck at the southern border created by administrative confusion with the implementation of the USMCA (formerly NAFTA). Then Mexico’s shelter-in-place orders changed suddenly and without warning (and, often, reason, he said), limiting the ability to move product through the country, as the threat of a complete border closure loomed constantly. While commodity corn uses chemical sprays to make it easy to store, Masienda’s heirloom products are pretty perishable, so the uncertainty around border closures meant that to ensure a steady supply, they needed to secure cold storage in the U.S. at a much higher cost than their usual spots in Mexico. “You just have to absorb it,” Gaviria said. “Because people aren’t going to pay more in a time of crisis.”

But now they have the product in the U.S. and struggle to compete with shipping rates secured by big companies like Amazon or sweetheart deals available only to private-equity-backed companies. While pre-pandemic, the USPS helped even that out, “It’s in total disarray right now,” he said. “We were shipping something to Northern California, and it ended up in Hawaii.”

Masienda shifted resources to customer service to ensure that all packages make it to their destination, and Gaviria holds out hope that his company might be able to not just maintain but grow the business as they introduce more consumers to heirloom corn. “Now’s a great time to support small businesses,” he said, but also reminded people that is just what they are. “These are humans, not fulfillment centers.”

That message sometimes gets hidden as companies try to assure customers that they will get whatever they paid for, but the current challenges mean giving up on that. After two consecutive shipments disappeared, Sackeyfio closed his truck, posting the reason on Facebook. Customers tried to help — one sent a similar spice mix from a shop in Indiana — but it didn’t help long-term, since the store sold a few ounces for $15, close to double what he pays shipping from Ghana.

Frisch empathized with Sackeyfio. “Stuff gets held endlessly in customs. The FDA will inspect shipments, but you have no insight into how long that process is going to take.” Sometimes it takes weeks or months, he said, then they charge for the storage and tests, without telling the business what the tests were — only if the product passed. “Then we get a bill for $5,000.” But there’s nothing they can do because they won’t release the shipment until it’s paid.

Sometimes it takes weeks or months, he said, then the FDA charges for the storage and tests, without telling the business what the tests were — only if the product passed. ‘Then we get a bill for $5,000.’

“It’s a ridiculous process,” Frisch said, but one that normally stays behind the scenes. Then their importing issues led to customer complaints that “everything” on their website was sold out. They decided to send out an email newsletter detailing examples like how India’s hard lockdown with just four hours of warning kept their turmeric farmer from bringing his new harvest to the grinder. “Bringing people into that process was really eye-opening,” he said. “We spend all our time talking about farmers and spices, but we don’t spend a lot of time talking to our customers about the thing in the middle — the logistical process of getting the spice from a small farm in Indonesia or wherever.”

Most Americans, he observed, have little understanding of the multi-leg trip that that imported food has to make, despite so much of what we eat being imported. “It feels like this huge blind spot in most Americans' understanding of food and food supply chains.”

Even though their customers mostly seemed understanding, Sackeyfio said he’s sticking with DHL to bypass the USPS, and Frisch said Burlap & Barrel began focusing on domestic products. Now the newsletter will tell customers all about how alternate-day lockdowns in Guatemala slowed cardamom shipments, but also about wild ramps from the Adirondacks, saffron from Illinois, and seaweed from Maine.

Food and travel writer Naomi Tomky is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook. Follow her on Twitter @Gastrognome and on Instagram @the_gastrognome

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