Cold chains are not just a food wastage solution in countries like India but a very important food safety solution as well. Today Indians buy meat and fish from roadside vendors who have not frozen the meat immediately after butchering or frozen the fish immediately after catch. In a tropical country like India, meat and fish start rotting within 30 minutes of exposure to room temperatures. In addition, across the unorganised sector, meat and fish are handled by vendors using their unsanitized and ungloved bare hands. So most people in India are actually eating contaminated meat and fish that would not be allowed to be sold in the developed world.
This safety problem also extends to fresh, processed or packaged food that is supposed to be refrigerated or frozen. The vendors who sell these products do not maintain the foods consistently at the required temperatures because of faulty equipment, poor handling at the point of transfer to their freezers and also due to unavailability of uninterrupted power (frequent load shedding).
Contamination is widespread due to the above reasons and the resultant disease and even death are almost always blamed on some other wrong reasons.
Demand for frozen foods
As India’s economy is booming, the average Indian household is also witnessing a change with more women joining the workforce to improve their lifestyle. This change is impacting our food habits as everybody is rushing and is depending more on ready to eat meals and frozen food. Exposure to myriad food trends transcending traditional cuisines has fuelled the desire for variety amongst Indian consumers.
Presently, the Indian frozen food market is estimated at Rs 1,500 crore and is expected to reach Rs 3,750 crore in the next five years, as per the research report by Frost & Sullivan. However, the full potential of frozen foods is still to be realized in India due to the presence of several impediments.
Inadequate cold chain, infrastructure and transport facilities
Frozen food has to be kept at -18°c and below as any increase in the temperature of the environment may lead to deterioration in food quality. Cold supply chain transports frozen products while maintaining the required temperature.
The cold chain in India is in early stages of development. At the moment the segment is dominated by unorganised sector suppliers and small businesses with poor networks. As the services are not integrated, it leads to wastage and damage to food due to frequent handling and transfer.
There are very few specialised distribution companies providing refrigerated transport and warehousing for perishable produce/processed food products. The prime reasons for the low adoption of cold chain facilities has been high costs, insufficient investments and lack of technical skills to conceptualise and execute. As a result, there are not many players operating in this segment.
The development of robust cold chain with efficiently designed infrastructure with the right network and a strong IT backbone would contribute to an immediate reduction in waste, and improved product availability across the country.
Using frozen ingredients over fresh
As Indians we are more inclined to using fresh ingredients in cooking because we consider speed of cooking, nutritional value, family preferences and cost management.
Till recently, frozen food was limited to just frozen peas, vegetables, non-vegetarian products and ice-creams. We are now exposed to exotic frozen food options in world cuisines from all over the world that are not readily available in the market, especially in non-metro cities.
The average Indian mindset for using frozen foods is also changing slowly due to the realisation that frozen ingredients can be more nutritious than processed food and is available all year long.
A study by the Institute of Food Research has shown that frozen vegetables do have more nutrition than fresh vegetables. The nutritional value of a fresh vegetable drops quickly during its packaging, shipping, and shelving interval, whereas frozen vegetables had a shorter pick to pack interval and more nutrients are preserved than in fresh.
Growing demand for frozen foods
With the economy growth and lifestyle improvement, there is a growing demand for frozen foods in India today. Governments increased policy support for investment in cold chain projects, import duty reductions, preferential taxes as well as 100% FDI in cold chain facilities, will see more private sector investing in supply chain infrastructure (cold chain, storage, preservation and better transportation) and skill development.
This is the right time for frozen food companies to invest in expansion facilities and also develop new products with features that appeal to the growing Indian consumer base and the export markets.