Kiwifruit exporter Zespri says it has sent relief supplies of New Zealand water to earthquake-torn Japan with its first shipment of kiwifruit for the season.
A Japanese refrigerated freighter left Tauranga yesterday for Kobe and Tokyo Bay carrying 30,000 thousand litres of water, in bottles and cartons, alongside around 500,000 trays of new season gold kiwifruit.
Zespri's general manager for its supply chain, Sally Gardiner, said a second shipment was due to go to the same ports early next week.
A Zespri spokesman said that the company had not encountered any problems in shipping schedules, partly because it used chartered ships, rather than scheduled shipping services,
Some companies running scheduled routes, such as Germany's Hapag-Lloyd and container ship operator Claus-Peter Offen, have been avoiding Tokyo Bay area ports due to radiation fears, even though Japan's port infrastructure was left largely unscathed by the huge earthquake and tsumami on March 11.
Three weeks after the disaster on the north-east coast of Japan, the world's third largest economy is grappling with threats from radiation leaks. Tokyo's 13 million people have been told not to give infants tap water.
Ms Gardiner said Zespri had been closely monitoring the situation in Japan, which takes about 17 per cent of NZ kiwifruit exports and accounts for about 30 per cent of the revenue.
"Our first thoughts were for the safety of our 17 staff based in Japan," she said. "We were also concerned for the safety and wellbeing of our customers and distributors there, many with who we have formed strong bonds and friendships over decades of working together".
Zespri's 730 Japanese kiwifruit growers, whose crops are still six months from harvest, are well away from the earthquake zone. They are in the Ehime and Saga Prefectures more than 800km south of Tokyo.
"Given our long association with Japan we wanted to contribute to the relief efforts there by supplying packaged water," Ms Gardiner said. The shipping company was carrying the water from Aquaceuticals NZ at no cost.
The new season kiwifruit would arrive in the Japanese market in mid-April, and Zespri has been told demand for NZ kiwifruit remained strong.
"Our export programme to Japan will continue as planned," Ms Gardiner said.
Shipments to other key markets in Asia, Europe and North America will also soon start with consignments of green gold and organic kiwifruit. Two of the early vessels will deliver kiwifruit - formerly known as Chinese gooseberries - to Shanghai for the China markets.
The new season is expected to be a strong one, despite millions of dollars worth of kiwifruit vines having been culled in an effort to control the spread of the PSA kiwifruit canker, which particularly affects gold vines. The impact of vine removals in an effort to contain the disease is so far less than half of one per cent of the total crop volume.
"Early indications are that the volume produced during the 2011 season will be similar to last year's, with around 100 million trays of kiwifruit being exported," Ms Gardiner said.
Zespri has reported significant growth in markets in China, India and South East Asia and stable growth in Europe and North America.