Indian agriculture being one of the main drivers of the country’s economic growth ranks high in production. Further, India is among the world’s largest producers of fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and seafood. The country produces over 400 million metric tonnes (MMT) of overall perishable food production. However, due to lack of proper cold chain, 15-50 per cent of this perishable food is lost. The nation has access to only 60 per cent of this production.

According to Invest India, a national investment promotion and facilitation agency, the annual value of harvest and post-harvest losses of major agricultural production at the national level is estimated to be USD 14 billion.

The Government of India (GoI) has emphasised on doubling farmers’ income, by 2022, through productivity gains. For this, the government initiative Operation Green will support agri-logistics, food processing units and food producer organisations. Despite transformations in the Indian agriculture sector in terms of agricultural volume, the sector has been grappling with structural issues such as average farm size, modernisation of farm practices, marketability or handling of post-harvest produce. Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology estimated that about Rs 92,000 crore worth of major agricultural produce at wholesale prices is lost in India every year due of lack of proper system efficiency.

United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 40 per cent of fresh fruits and vegetables are wasted every year due to lack of efficient cold chain infrastructure. Centre for Public Policy research has in its report in 2016 mentioned that only 2 per cent of produce in India are kept or transported using cold chain as compared to 85 per cent in the US.

Need for development of cold chain
According to Shubhashis Dey, Program Manager, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, developing an integrated coldchain is one of the key measures under ‘Operation Green’ to modernise farm practices and handling of post-harvest produce and minimise food loss. Cold chain is an integrated and immaculate network of refrigerated and temperature-controlled pack houses, distribution hubs and freight used to maintain the safety and quality of food, thus, building efficient market links. Cold chain reduces post-harvest food loss and increases farm income by storing and transporting high quality produce to distant cities throughout the year.

Shubhashis Dey, Program Manager, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation

An efficient post-harvest management and agri-logistics system including aggregation, pre-conditioning, pre-cooling and refrigerated transportation not only helps to reduce food loss but also aids in expanding the reach to distant markets. A well-established cold chain can play a crucial role in enhancing the economic returns to farmers, and thus, has been a focus area in the recommendations for the government initiative on doubling farmers’ income.

Nipun Goyal, Director – Business Development, Geetee Carriers Pvt Ltd states, “In general, cold chain is applicable to products which have storage temperatures cooler than Controlled Room Temperature (CRT) or are very sensitive to temperature variation, on both sides of the storage range. Hence, the main objective is to keep the temperature sensitive products within the designated temperature range to ensure that product quality, safety, efficacy, and stability is maintained.”

Nipun Goyal, Director – Business Development, Geetee Carriers Pvt Ltd

The majority of Indian farms are small and are not in a position to invest directly in infrastructure or transact at wholesale markets.

Hence, development of healthy, energy efficient cold chain is essential for all food perishables. Currently, India has 6,300 cold storage facilities unevenly spread across the country, with an installed capacity of 30.11 million metric tonnes. Studies have shown this is half the amount of cold storage facilities that India actually needs. Cold storage capacity for all food products in the country should be more than 61 million metric tonnes. In order to reach that target, the report says an investment of more than Rs 55,000 crore is needed just to keep up with growing fruit and vegetable production levels.

Managing Cold Chain Efficiently
According to a market report, Indian cold chain market was worth about Rs 1,12,000 crore in 2018. It is projected to reach about Rs 2,61,800 crore by 2024 growing at a CAGR of 15 per cent during 2019-24. In this scenario, it is very necessary to preserve the quality of food during processing and transport and total energy consumption in refrigeration.

A cold chain’s efficiency and effectiveness is dependent on its backward integration and commercial sustainability. The cold chain should be designed in a way that it is no longer a seasonal business but a perennial provider of cooling services, asserts Shubhashis Dey from Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation. He adds, “This can happen if the cold chain is designed after assessing the cooling requirements of the nearby communities and the first point of contact is conveniently located near the supply aggregation point. Cold chain has to supply market information to the producers (farmers and fish producers etc.) so that they can harvest their products accordingly. This also reduces the space and cost of storage.”

The most important aspect for any cold chain is the proper and optimal regulation of temperature in storage or transit which can be achieved by precise operation and timely inspection at every process level or check points. Prudent management of cold chain can achieve the goal of energy efficiency apart from the quality of food. According to Kalidas Bhangare, Managing Director, Testo India Pvt Ltd, controlled temperature helps in effective performance of the cold chain and the quality of stored good is always of the highest standard.

Kalidas Bhangare, Managing Director, Testo India Pvt Ltd

“Cold chain also needs to maintain air quality and levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen, humidity, etc in order to function efficiently. As we can see that the core of cold chain depends on climate monitoring and regulation of physical parameters which can be governed using testing and measuring instruments. Testo provides a wide range of data loggers that measure and document temperature and humidity automatically and without interruption at every step of the cold chain,” adds Bhangare.

Stefano Soggia, Application Manager, Refrigeration, Carel, informs, “Advanced cold room controllers now support technology to drive variable-speed DC compressors and electronic expansion valves on the evaporator. The combination of these three devices can ensure constant temperature preservation inside a cold room, in which the product is not subjected to temperature swings due to traditional on/off control. It is estimated that in an advanced cold room (with normal day-to-day loading or unloading activities), the temperature remains within a narrow range (±)1C from the set point for more than 80 per cent of the time including scheduled defrosting activities.”

Stefano Soggia, Application Manager, Refrigeration, Carel

In order to assure quality and health from farm to fork, Soggia, opines that on the product side, hazard analysis and critical control points, or HACCP standards are already providing a collection of procedures, based on preventive monitoring of the entire chain. The next step forward is to provide technicians and professionals working in this field with technologies that are not only compliant with current standards, but that can also improve the way products are preserved, increasing their shelf life.

Elaborating, Soggia adds that product value is effectively a critical point, also due to the total cost of energy consumption in the cold chain (with refrigeration being one of the biggest contributors), and efficiency is always one of the main requests from end users. Compared to a standard product, an advanced cold room system including electronic expansion valves for refrigerant flow modulation and a variable speed DC compressor can bring up to 30 per cent energy savings compared to a traditional on/off system, and an average of 15 per cent when compared against more advanced AC inverter technology compressors.

According to Goyal, the cold chain can be managed effectively and efficiently in the following ways:
• Efficient and well maintained reefer vehicles must be planned as per demand. Temperature controlled containers (TCCs) must be fabricated as per technically sound design specifications and equipped with calibrated temperature sensors and GPS.
• TCCs must be qualified including temperature mapping studies, before use, to confirm their capability to provide the temperature conditions within the acceptable limits. The
mapping studies must be repeated periodically to confirm their continued compliance.
• The temperature during transportation must be monitored continuously to ensure compliance to the requirements and any excursion.
• Reefers must be confirmed to be clean and free from odour and smell and pre-cooled before loading. All loading and unloading operations must be done as per quality and safety requirements and the critical parameters of these operations must be recorded as checklist or otherwise.
• Route planning must be done to ensure safe and quick delivery.
• All persons involved in the operations including the drivers, must be trained in their operations.
• Risks involved must be evaluated through risk management program for identification and prioritisation for mitigation and contingency plan.

It is pragmatic to establish a quality assurance program. An example of such a program would include but is not limited to the following:

  1. All procedures must be detailed in the form of standard operating procedures and concerned people must be trained on them
  2. Critical activities must be documented as per approved formats and reviewed for completion, data integrity and for correctness
  3. Periodical Internal Audits on the functions to confirm their compliance to the requirements
  4. Training must be imparted as appropriated and evaluated.
  5. Record retention policy must be in place
  6. Calibration must be done at least annually for all measuring and testing devices
  7. Preventive maintenance program must be in place for all equipment like air conditioners, vehicles and other systems
  8. Procedures must be in place for handling deviations and for investigation for due corrective and preventive actions
  9. Procedures must be in place for handling changes with due evaluation of impact.

IoT in cold chain
With the advent of IoT (Internet of things), it is easy to collect accurate data automatically and help to get real time visibility of temperature data, thus, deriving substantial business benefits. Moreover, inclusion of digitised and smart work processes can eliminate errors during manual readings and documentation of individual measurement data.

“Testo Wi-Fi data logger system is simple, flexible and reliable solution to humidity and temperature monitoring in store rooms, cold storage area and work rooms. Real time data monitoring with the growing dependency on IT infrastructure plus the cloud technology is now becoming the need of the hour as it enables the supplier to prove the quality and credibility of goods anytime anywhere. Transportation trucks, warehouses, cold rooms etc can now be remotely monitored via Testo data loggers and data monitoring systems,” informs Bhangare.

Soggia states that data logging for HACCP compliance is performed using the internal memory on controller, with USB flash drive downloading or advanced Bluetooth smartphone integration, or using an external monitoring system, giving graphs of product temperature profiles together with any preventive alarm signals. This allows a quick response in advance, ensuring both the quality and value of the stored goods are preserved.

Advanced technology-based and tailor-made solutions that are essential for meeting the diverse demands, cold chain can bring efficiency and thus, support growth of the industry.