I picked up a top-notch, branded frozen product at a national retail player’s outlet and it crushed into paste when it crashed onto the floor. How can frozen food be so soft when it is supposed to be frozen? Yes we are going to unveil our minds to the truth of the so called ‘FARM to FORM / PLATE’ cold chain in India.
This incident brought a lot of reflection on our nation’s retail skills, cold chain skills and more importantly what sort of food safety standards do we ACTUALLY depend on _ assuming that we are consuming SAFE food.
We are frequently watching cold chain enthusiasts in India ramping up the number of events, conferences, seminars, trade shows etc about Cold Chain. In such events, there would typically be an extensive discussion about how much the country lacks in terms of infrastructure yet boasting about our food output and bursting consumption growth over the last decade. Ceremony lamps are lit by popular personalities, a long day session on pros & cons about the industry, a few photographs, press releases and period. While such efforts and initiatives are to be much appreciated, how many of such events have actually put consumers in place? How many of such events have ACTUALLY brought a change or improvement in the Indian Cold Chain? How many new technologies have been brought to light that has contributed to national savings on wastage of perishables due to lack of cold chain? We are talking about bringing a revolutionary change, in other words look for a desperate need to save the amount of wastage that could feed the Brazilian population for an ENTIRE year!
How many food manufacturers in India (be it a national or multinational brand), particularly chilled / frozen/ perishable food actually dedicate x% of sales on improving Holistic Cold Chain? In other words, spend to maintain the quality of food right from the farm/factory to the consumer end. We can only seek hope with a few good food manufacturers who care about cold chain while everyone else is after EBITDA and profits.
Cold chain. It sounds very simple, doesn’t it? But is it, really? Cold storages, Refrigerated trucks, freezers and coolers, which are the heart and brain of cold chain would be useless without a healthy body to keep alive. While many food manufacturers work a lot on beautifying the body externally, in other words, the product with a variety of flavours, textures, applications carefully targeting various market segments etc. What about nurturing and protecting the product that enables freshness, quality and longer shelf life? Without an integrated Cold Chain in place, i.e., from farm to plate, nothing much can be done than said. Well, the point to wonder now is that: Coming back to our first point of discussion, If a modern retailer cannot take the necessary initiative to provide optimal cold chain for perishables such as dairy, dairy products, ice cream, frozen food, pastry, meat & poultry, fruits, vegetables etc, how much would a Kirana store or our neighbourhood retailer really care about?
Let us see the Food Safety Standards set for Dairy Products in India: the microbial requirement of food products (1st table next page).
This may look Greek and Latin to a consumer, but the point to note is that there are definitely standards set in our country by FSSAI for health safety, but how much of it is being practised? The real question is: HOW Safe is the food we consume? How many of us know that some pathogens that can survive in food even at low (negative) temperature include Salmonella spp., Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter spp. and Yersinia spp. We are even talking about ice cream and frozen food.
Cold Chain in Milk: Refrigeration is the single most important factor in maintaining the safety of milk. By law, Grade A milk must be maintained at a temperature of 7°C or below. Bacteria in milk will grow minimally below 7°C. However, temperatures well below 4°C are necessary to protect the milk’s quality. It is critical that these temperatures be maintained through warehousing, distribution, delivery and storage. The cooler refrigerated milk is kept, the longer it lasts and the safer it is. As the product is allowed to warm, the bacteria grow more rapidly. Infants, pregnant women, the elderly and the chronically ill (such as those undergoing cancer treatments and individuals with AIDS, diabetes or kidney disease) are mostly at risk from serious illness due to consuming any unsafe food.
We are not really certain if the milk available in the market is Grade A at par with global food standards or not, but it is definitely evident that the Milk we buy from the retail store has not been transported nor stored at point of sale at 40C. How so? Most of the Cold Chain experts know that milk dispatched from the factories is transported in insulated containers and not refrigerated ones. Even worse, when it comes to retail, last mile delivery, we can only see closed body containers – not even insulated ones. The reason? ‘Well, it is not all that hot in the morning when milk is distributed to retail stores.’ We cannot blame the distributors who are mere transporters who remain as unaware as the consumers when it comes to cold chain.
Do consumers know how much would such lack of cold chain imply in terms of food safety?
According to Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the milk & milk products order (1992) makes it very clear that Milk Manufacturers ‘shall endeavour to maintain a cold chain from the place of milk procurement up to the final stage of sale of the milk or milk product to the end consumer and every holder of the registration certificate shall observe such procedures and practices that may be approved by the Advisory Board for clean milk production, collection, transportation and distribution of milk and milk product.’
Refer the table below for Optimal Storage Temperature for Dairy & Ice Cream Products – which every consumer can be made aware of.
We are not only focusing on critical primary food such as dairy. The plight is pretty much the same for fruits and vegetables, pastry, seafood, meat and poultry and many more.
The only hope to enabling an effective food safety bill is when the government and food manufacturers work hand in hand to deliver fresh, hygienic and safe food through efficient cold chain – that would start right from farm to fork. Until then, perhaps every Indian consumer would continue to compromise by throwing away the bad food and opening a new pouch/ pack instead of demanding the retailer to compensate for the bad quality and health safety breach.