Innovative steps to get fruits of labour

| | in Oped

The Food Processing Ministry may have included new, 101 cold storage units, but the fate of tropical Indian fruits, which comes in scores of variety, remains poor

Verghese Kurien's trailblazing foray into milk processing set up the first ever co-operative venture in Gujarat and created the iconic Amul in 1946 at Anand, Gujarat; over 35 per cent of India's milk production now gets processed and its shelf life extended.

Buffalo meat and seafood, which are export driven, also get preserved at a rate of 20 per cent and 26 per cent respectively. However, fruits and vegetables continue to remain a sad story with around 25 per cent of produce getting lost to spoilage due to lack of satisfactory storage, processing and distribution facilities.

Perishables can be given a longer lease of life if kept cool, preferably in the two to eight degree celsius range, depending on the type of food, and with nitrogen replacing atmospheric oxygen in the storage area, it can withstand spoilage for months on end .

However, unless precooked,fruits and vegetables are cooled below zero degree Celsius, it would turn into a mass of pulp on defreezing as it's cells would have been shattered due to formation of ice. Hence, it is cooled mostly at four degree Celsius.

Presently, almost 7,000 cold storages dot the country side,  majority being located in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh and almost 80 per cent of these are simply, a vast room kept cool around fourto 10 degree celsius used for storing mostly potatoes, pulses even spices. They hope to reduce spoilage, even though there is no atmospheric control.

Though set up by private parties, Governmental intervention in the form of fixing a ceiling on what they can charge from the farmers for storage, coupled with poor supervision, means, they are almost defunct or running below capacity.

135 state-of-the-art cold storage facilities set up over the last couple of decades with judicious incentives given by the Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MoFPI) in the private and public sectors, costing about Rs3,150 crore which promises to bring down the food spoilage in India from the present 25-30 per cent to less than 10per cent

Historically, Maharashtra has been a trailblazer in such initiatives and leads the pack with a whopping 29 facilities, of which Pune and Nasik boast of seven and five units respectively.

Uttarakhand, which is India's fruit basket, has 16 cold storage units for apple and other fruits, followed by 10 in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh each, nine each in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and eight each in West Bengal and Haryana.

A cold chain has to ensure an uninterrupted series of refrigeration for production, storage and distribution activities, along with associated equipment and logistics. The status of the consginment is evaluated at every step of the chain in which a fleet of refrigerated trucks, containers, ships, and even trains are often pressed into service

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and temperature  data loggers keep a record of the history of the consignment, and  a tab on the remaning shelf life. Documentation is vital with an etablished protocol being followed at each step of the chain and corrective steps taken for the consigment being delivered from farm to the table.

The Consolidated Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Policy of 2014 has now permitted large number of food products, hitherto  reserved for the small sector. With an ‘automatic route’ for  approval of 100 per cent equity proposals and simplfied taxation regime, this sector has seen a visible jump in such investements.

The recent sanction by MoFPI for setting up of 101 cold storage units, with a total capacity of a whopping 2,76,000 tonnes of food and farm products, include a few big guns in the retail business such as Haldiram, Big Basket, Amul and Falcon Marine Exports Ltd. etc, who, by inducting latest technology in the industry, could take this sector to new heights.

However, a weak link still remains. Though standard protocols are available for processing and storage both, for fruits such as apples, peaches, apricots which are from temperate regions, there are no comparative protocols and standards available for typical tropical Indian fruits such as mangoes, which is available in scores of varities. Same holds for the Indian varities of bananas, oranges, lichis.

Research and trials on war-footing will need to be undertaken by our agro-scientists to set up these standards to get the optimum benefit from the brand new facilities now on the cards. Pesumably, with large amounts of moolah at stake, the big guns will ensure it.

(The writer is a former Member, Railway Board)

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