It was in the 70’s that a new wave of multiproduct cold stores began in Maharashtra and that was followed by development in other important avenues in the food processing and freezing sector across the country. This was followed by a shift of outlook from ‘cold storages’ to ‘cold chain’ where the entire food chain from farm to retail was seen as an important aspect of food preservation. Now, cold chain has emerged as a major area of development and is recognised as ‘Sunrise sector’ in India.

Current Scenario in India

The recent trends in cold chain industry in India show that apart from multiproduct cold stores, there has been as wave of introduction of new types of cold chain facilities like Controlled Atmosphere (CA) stores, Pack houses with processing and pre-cooling facility and ripening units. There is also great potential for frozen food production in the country and distribution facilities for the refrigerated foods. Refrigerated transport is an important link in the cold chain and has a great scope for increase in numbers.

The various types of cold chain facilities include:

  • Bulk cold storages for storing single commodity of large capacity with only few chambers. Bulk units are generally located near the producing centres and commonly store potatoes, chillies and raisins.
  • Multi-purpose cold stores for storing multiple commodities – mix of positive temperature cold storages for storing fresh fruits and vegetables, pulses, spices, etc and negative temperature frozen stores for storing meat, fish, dairy products, processed fruits and vegetables, etc.
  • Packhouse facility with pre-cooling for fresh fruits and vegetables which are required to be pre-treated, pre-cooled and cold stored as close to the source of production as possible. The facility consists a handling line which includes sorting, washing or cleaning, drying, grading, packing and palletisation of the produce. The products are then moved to the pre-cooling chamber and then to the staging cold store from where it is transferred to the reefer vans or containers. The facility is mainly used for exports and domestic organised market. Initially, the handling started as a manual process in a huge process hall with grading, sorting and packing of fruits and vegetables done on SS tables. Nowadays, automatic processing lines are used in most packhouses for round fruits and vegetables. As per current norms, the packhouses for export purposes are to be designed and constructed as per APEDA guidelines and approval.
  • Controlled Atmosphere (CA) stores: These are special purpose cold stores mainly for storage of apples, pears, etc. The concept of CA is to control percentage of oxygen and CO2 during the storage while maintaining the desired temperature and RH. The unit has number of small chambers as they are opened depending on the demand from the market. These projects are high value projects as they have special technology in gas tight construction and provision of continuous control of oxygen and CO2 along with temperature and RH.
  • Ripening Units: These are designed for scientific ripening of produce like bananas, mangoes, papayas, etc. This process involves maintenance of temperature, RH, supply and control of ethylene levels, CO2 levels, etc.
  • Frozen food production units with processing, freezing, packing and storage facilities. It was MAFCO, a government-owned subsidiary, who had a pioneering role in establishing multiproduct cold stores and frozen food facilities for fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry and milk products. They popularised frozen food varieties such as frozen peas, corn, mixed vegetables, okra, mango pulp, mango slices and dices, etc. This concept was later followed by other private players and this process is still on even in the current scenario. Apart from the above the normal frozen food varieties, they also came up with Ready-To-Eat (RTE) products like frozen parathas, samosas, etc

Frozen food plants incorporate the processing line which has facilities like cleaning, washing, blanching or pasteurisation, followed by the freezing, packing in bulk containers and storage in frozen food chambers. There are various types of freezers used by the industry and they include plate freezers, air blast freezers, IQF in line and spiral type freezers used depending on the type of the produce.

  • Food Distribution Centres (DCs) are designed to provide a variety of services including handling fresh, frozen and even non-refrigerated foods, both in the veg and non-veg category. The DC has the facilities for handling processing, freezing and storage of a large variety of items to cater to the food chains, large hotels, institutional canteens, etc. It also deals with the logistics aspects taking care of the last mile delivery of the good.
  • Refrigerated Transport: This is an integral part of the cold chain which includes reefers for positive temperatures as well as for negative temperatures for frozen foods. Variety of transport vehicles are available in various sizes depending on the long-haul service or last mile delivery. Electric driven vehicles have also now been introduced in smaller capacity range.
  • Food malls, retail food stores, etc are now a common place for consumers buy fresh and frozen produce where use of walk-in chillers and small cold rooms is increasing.

Based on NCCD’s report on ‘All India Cold-chain Infrastructure Capacity Assessment of Status & Gap’, as per recorded data (31.03.2014), and the information collected thereafter, the country has created nearly 33 MMTs of cold storage space. The additional requirement as per the report is just about 10 per cent of the existing capacity. The other areas where there is a potential for further development are as follows:

  • Packhouses: Existing infrastructure is approx. 500 nos. Estimated requirement is 70,000 nos. Hence the estimated gap is 69,500 nos.
  • Reefer vehicles: Existing vehicles – 10,000 nos. Estimated requirement, 61,800 nos. Hence the estimated gap is 51,800 nos.
  • Ripening chambers: Existing – 900 nos. Estimated requirement – 9,100 nos. Hence, the estimated gap is 8,200 nos.

It is also a matter of experience that some of the existing cold stores are non-functional and a large number of others are based on old and outdated technology. These certainly have to be upgraded with the modern technology and this itself is a huge business opportunity.

As far as the frozen food sector is concerned, the current processing capacity is estimated at 5-6 per cent of the production. This shows that there is a huge opportunity for growth in this sector. It has been observed that a number of players are planning setup units for frozen food production with the attractive financial incentives from MoFPI and other national bodies.

PEB with Insulated Panels

Growth of Cold Chain

Owing to the rising need of the infrastructure and to reduce wastage, according to a market research report, the cold chain industry in India is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 19 per cent during the period of 2017-2022. The drivers for growth of the industry include:

  • Changing demographics, lifestyle patterns and food consumption patterns in urban areas with nuclear family setup leading to increasing demand for processed, chilled, frozen food and beverages
  • Rising need for the cold chain facilities to reduce the cold chain infrastructure gap as stated above
  • Increasing government initiatives and financial support
  • Increasing private sector investments of both domestic and foreign players
  • Increasing demand for packaged, canned, frozen or ready-to-eat products
  • Increasing interest in Indian food market and investments from international players like food chains and logistic players.

Challenges in Cold Chain Development

On one hand, there is huge potential for cold chain industry in India. But these growth prospects come with some basic challenges at facility setup level as well as environment level:

Facility Setup Concerns:

o    High initial cost of cold chain projects with rising cost of land

o    Land availability at suitable locations

o    Insufficient market surveys

o    Lack of adequate and reliable power supply

o    Non-availability of adequate water with proper quality

o    Lack of proper road infrastructure

o    Lack of proper reefer transport

o    Lack of skilled personal.

Environment and Energy Concerns:

o    Global warming through refrigerant usage

o    High electrical energy usage

o    Water requirement in plenty

o    Refrigerant leakage

o    Damaged or spoilt produce disposal.

However, efforts are going on to find solutions to these issues with support from government and technical advisory bodies.

Distribution centre with insulated panel construction and docking facilities

Solutions to Environmental Challenges

Natural Refrigerants

Gone are the days for refrigerants causing ozone depletion. Even the refrigerants introduced later e.g. HFCs have come on the phase down list due to their high Global Warming Potential (GWP). The newer systems would now have either natural refrigerants such as Ammonia, CO2 and Hydro Carbons having zero ODP and GWP, or those synthetic ones which have very low GWP.

Safety Issues and Standards

Safety standards are being updated to reflect increasing interest in flammable or mildly flammable refrigerants. Flammability or toxicity requirements have been covered by ASHRAE safety standards 15 and 34 and their international equivalents (ISO 5149, ISO 817). IIAR standards are available for Ammonia for international application. Other organisations adopt ASHRAE technical requirements into codes and regulation. For cold chain projects in India, National Horticulture Board has published five standards for cold storages and other related projects which later have been transformed into MIDH standards.

Newer Technology in Cold Chain Project Construction

Keeping the above-mentioned challenges and solutions on radar, the technology for construction and operation of cold chain projects has undergone a lot of change over the past few years. These include advances in all aspects of cold chain management from construction to material handling equipment. Listing below the major advances in these fields:

  • In construction of cold chain facilities, PEB structures are now replacing conventional construction practices. Pre-engineered steel buildings (PEBs) are those which are fully fabricated in the factory after designing, shipped to site in CKD (completely knocked down) condition. All components are assembled and erected at site with nut-bolts, thereby, reducing the time of completion. Use of eco-friendly materials in construction is increasing.
  • Docks used for loading and unloading of products are now more scientifically designed to facilitate easier movement of materials and also ensure safety in operation.
  • Insulated panels technology has largely replaced the old and conventional insulation practice. Sandwich insulation panels ensure highly thermal insulation properties and high structural strength and are being used for cold stores as well as process halls.
  • Manual or mechanised insulated doors for cold rooms and docks ensure least energy loss and effective temperature control.
  • Use of eco-friendly refrigerants is now being promoted and practiced to take care of the environmental challenges.
  • Refrigeration machinery and systems are now designed with high energy efficiency for optimal use of power; thus, reducing operational costs and ensuring minimal water consumption. Apart from Ammonia and other low GWP refrigerants, CO2 is making in-roads in this field as primary refrigerant as well as secondary refrigerant (brine). As a latest development, Low Charge Ammonia systems are being developed and employed in the cold chain sector and the latest is addition of Ammonia DX systems which have much smaller refrigerant charge and can have fully automatic operation like the HFC plants.
  • Cold chain operations are getting more and more automated with state-of-the-art control systems. Capacity controls are used with compressors for energy savings.
  • Energy efficient equipment are being used in electrical systems. These include IE2 or IE3 electric motors, LED lighting, alarm systems, PLC systems, APFC panels and Solar PV panels.
  • Use of renewable energy like solar, wind and other sources are finding their place in cold chain field. Innovative products like solar roofs, energy generating systems with use of biogas and cow-dung cakes, etc are being introduced in markets. The use of solar PV is getting popular, especially where net-metering is available.
  • In material handling and storage systems, various modern storage systems are being implemented like racks for manual loading and unloading operation, racks with reach trucks, fork lifts, BOPTs, etc
  • IT and automation has started making way into the industry as the scale of cold chain facilities increasing and more and more bigger companies and multinationals are making an entry into this industry. Software for e-tendering, cold storage management, cold logistics management, IoT sensors and tracking in reefer transport, mobile monitoring of remote operations, etc are becoming increasing popular.
  • In the fire safety domain, there is increasing awareness about provision of dry and wet firefighting systems which have to be installed as per local norms.

    Pack House – Inside view of Product Handling Hall

Government Initiatives

In order to promote technically sound, energy efficient and sustainable cold chain, the government has established National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) under Ministry of Agriculture. The other related institutions are:

  • Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH) (www.midh.gov.in)
  • National Horticulture Board (NHB) (www.nhb.gov.in)
  • National Horticulture Mission (NHM) (www.nhm.nic.in)
  • Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MOFPI) (www.mofpi.nic.in)
  • Agriculture and Processed food products Export Development Authority (APEDA) (www.apeda.gov.in)
  • RKVY and other state and central level bodies

Further to increase investments and promote entrepreneurship and growth in this sector, the government provides good financial incentives through the above-mentioned bodies. They ensure that financial schemes are relevant to the need of the industry and promote growth in the right direction. The schemes also take into consideration the varied geography of the country and are spread across various states in the country.

Technical support is available from various organisations like ISHRAE, ASHRAE, NCCD, NHB, GCCA, IIAR and some other institutions. These organisations help promote cold chain in the country, provide standards for installation, safety and other aspects of cold chain, organise cold chain events which help increase business and fuel growth on state, national and international level.

Green Cold Chain – The need of the hour

To address the environmental challenges and energy concerns of the cold chain industry, the concept of green cold chain was introduced by the author in 2008. This concept has been presented and promoted at various forums in India, Germany, Colombia, USA, Dubai, Thailand. etc.

A green cold chain concept encompasses the following main features:

-Environment friendly locations, layouts and building structures
-Building structures with high thermal efficiency
-Highly efficient refrigeration and electrical systems
-Water saving and other related features
-Use of renewable energy in the best possible manner.

Realising the need for developing sustainable technology in the refrigeration and cold chain sector, ASHRAE, The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers – an international organisation, has also recently published ‘ASHRAE Guide for Sustainable Refrigerated Facilities and Refrigeration Systems’. The author was a part of the Project Monitoring Committee (PMS) for this first of its kind publication of ASHRAE. In addition, his own work in promoting green technology has been acknowledged by including his work in the list of references.

Modern Cold Chain Facility following Green Design Concepts

Conclusion

An overview of the refrigeration and cold chain industry in India over the past 50 years shows that the industry has undergone significant transformation in terms of industrial applications, technology, geographical spread, standards and practices followed and support from government as well as technical organisations. Energy saving and Green Cold Chain concepts are also being seriously looked at by owners, private players and entrepreneurs.

However, it must be realised that for a country which is No. 1 in terms of milk production and No. 2 in terms of F&V production, the overall food processing, storage and cold transport capacity cannot be considered adequate and there is a good potential for development of modern and energy efficient cold chain facilities.

The concept of green cold chain needs to be promoted, rating system for evaluation of the projects needs to be formulated and special incentives need to be considered for green cold chain projects.

To support the government’s goal of doubling farmer’s income, cold chain will play as a key enabler by improving post-harvest management, reducing food waste, maintaining food quality and hence helping in increase sales and market rates of food products.

One can, certainly, hope that a scientifically developed, technology sound and environment friendly and energy efficient cold chain will transform into a value chain which will offer value for the producers, processors, cold store owners, transporters, distributors, retailers and finally the consumers.

(The author acknowledges contribution of Ms. Aditi Surange, Technology Expert at ACR PCPL in putting together this article)