Technology

Cold Chain in India Potential of Turning into ‘Gold Chain’

Cold Chain is now recognised as a sunrise sector in India. It is true that in a country which ranks first in milk production, second in fruits and vegetables in the world, and has substantial production of marine, meat and poultry products, the country needed a fully-developed cold chain sector. The development was rather slow until the year 2000 and it is only in the last decade that fairly good progress has taken place in the cold chain sector. The current scenario reveals that there is tremendous scope for the development of cold chain facilities in India.

Realising the significance of the cold chain industry, the Government of India has taken initiatives, through bodies like National Horticulture Board (NHB), to establish standards for all the arms of the cold chain. The Government is also offering financial incentives through bodies like NHB, MoFPI, NHM, NFDB, APEDA etc. In short, the cold chain industry in India is in the eye of a revolution.

History and Growth of Cold Chain

At the time of Indian independence, there were only a few cold stores mainly located in UP, Punjab and West Bengal. Most of these were bulk cold stores designed for storage of potatoes. These were mainly based on old technology of construction, thermal insulation and refrigeration systems with practically no automation systems.

One of the oldest multi-chamber cold stores, located in fruit research station at Pune, was supposedly installed in 1932 during British rule. This was mainly an experimental station with seven cold rooms and worked on a common brine chilling plant. The unit was mainly used for studying the cold storage parameters for a variety of fruits and vegetables grown in India. This shows that the concept of multi-product cold storage was realised even during 1930s. A few cold stores did exist in Mumbai in the 1950s with a number of small chambers, mainly used for potatoes, fruits and dry fruits.

During 1950s-60s, the development of the cold storage industry was mainly confined to the states of UP, Punjab, Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal, MP and Gujarat where cold storages of medium and large sizes were set up, but these were mainly bulk storage units for potatoes.

However, major development of the concept of multipurpose cold storage units took place between 1965 and 1970, when a few units were established for storage of a number of products in Bangalore and Pune.

MAFCO, a government of Maharashtra undertaking, established around 1970, played a significant role in promoting the concept of multipurpose cold storage, food processing, freezing and storage of frozen foods.

The capacities of multipurpose units generally ranged from 1000 MT to 20,000 MT. The largest multipurpose unit with a capacity of 22,000 MT is located in Turbhe Industrial Area in Navi Mumbai (M/s Savla Foods & Cold Storage Pvt Ltd). Presently, the multipurpose units store a large number of food products such as fruits and vegetables, dry fruits, spices, milk products, confectionery, all types of frozen food etc.

Growth of Cold Storage Industry

The growth of the cold storage industry in India from the year 1955 to 2008 is shown in Table 1. The distribution of cold stores in different regions of India has not been uniform as will be evident from Table 2, which shows region-wise break-up of numbers of cold stores in different regions based on data available for the year 2007. Figure 1, additionally shows this region-wise distribution. Table 3 indicates the capacities in MT of cold stores in different regions. Table 4 shows sector-wise (public, private and the cooperative sectors) distribution of cold stores based on year 2007. Table 5 shows product-wise distribution of the cold storage capacity in 2007.

Pre-cooling of Fruits and Vegetables

The concept of pre-cooling of grapes was introduced in 1980s, primarily in Maharashtra, which is the leading grape growing state in India. This helped the farmers to export grapes to Europe, Gulf countries, and other parts of world. Later, this technology was adopted for other fruits like mangoes, pomegranates, oranges etc.

Controlled Atmosphere Storage

With the onset of 21st century, the need was realised to set up controlled atmosphere following the trends in Europe, America and other countries. A number of controlled atmosphere stores have been established in the northern part of the country at locations which have proximity to apple growing regions. The capacities generally ranged between 1000 MT and 12000 MT. The project of 12000 MT set up by CONCOR is the largest in the country so far. A few units of smaller capacities have also been established in western and southern parts.

Ripening Units

There has been considerable interest in scientific ripening and storage of food like banana, mango etc, in recent years and the units are being established at a number of places. A good development in this direction can be seen in Gujarat, Maharashtra and southern states.

Distribution Centres

With the growth of cold chain industry, food distribution centres have been established in the country, with the first such unit constructed in Navi Mumbai region. A number of smaller centres have been set up by the food retail sector and a further growth is expected in the coming years.

Cold Storage Classification

As per the present day practice, the cold stores can be classified as follows:

• Bulk Cold Stores: Generally for storage of a single commodity, which mostly operate on a seasonal basis e.g. stores for potatoes, chillies, apples etc;

• Multipurpose Cold Stores designed for storage of a variety of commodities which operate, practically, around the year. The products stored in these types of cold stores are fruits, vegetables, dry fruits, spices, pulses, milk products etc. These units have been mainly located near the consuming centres;

• Small Cold Stores with pre-cooling facilities for fresh fruits and vegetables, mainly, for export oriented items like grapes etc. The major concentration of these units is in Maharashtra but the trend is now picking up in other states like Karnataka, Andhra, Gujarat etc;

• Frozen Food Stores with or without processing and freezing facility for fish, meat, poultry, dairy products and processed fruits and vegetables. These units have helped the promotion and the growth of frozen foods sector, both in the domestic and the export markets. However, the percentage of foods so processed is extremely low and a great potential exists for growth in this category;

• Mini Units/Walk-in Cold Stores located at hotels, restaurants, malls, supermarkets etc;

• Controlled Atmosphere Stores for certain fruits/vegetables like apples, pears, cherries;

• Ripening Chambers mainly setup for bananas and mangoes.

Trends in Construction Practices

Whereas the bulk cold stores have a fewer number of large sized chambers the multi-purpose units have a larger number of smaller chambers designed for simultaneous storage of a variety of items to suit the needs of farmers, traders and other customers.

The general types of construction followed in Indian cold storage industry are:

• Conventional buildings with RCC frames, brick walls and truss type sheet roofs or RCC slabs with internal floor structure of RCC or steel frame with wooden or steel grating;

• Buildings with single floor structure designed for mechanised loading and unloading of products;

• Pre-engineered building structures designed with cold chambers constructed from sandwich insulated panels. The recent trend is to have cold chambers in single floor construction with heights, varying from 5-12 metres or higher with mechanised loading/unloading facilities. Some units have racks for stacking the goods.

Recent Practices are:

Walls & Ceiling: Insulated panel construction;
Roof: Sheet metal roofing on trusses;
Internal Structures: Steel structure with steel grille floors for conventional loading, racks for mechanised loading.

The construction practices in India vary depending on the size of the unit, the location and the pattern of utilisation.

Conclusion

An overview of the cold chain sector in India over the past 50-60 years shows that the cold storage industry has undergone significant transformation. From the point of view of utilisation also, the cold stores today offer much wider scope than in the past. Energy saving and the ‘Green Cold Chain’ concept are also being seriously looked at by the progressive entrepreneurs and designers.

However, it must be realised that for a country which is No 1 in terms of milk production and No 2 in terms of fruits and vegetables production, the overall storage capacity of around 31 million MT of cold storage available cannot be considered adequate, and there seems to be good potential for the development of modern and energy efficient storage units.

NHB took a big step in creating technical standards for cold chain projects. The following five standards were developed with the help of experts for the benefit of the promoters and designers of cold chain projects for reference:

• Cold storages for storage of fresh horticulture products which do not require pre-cooling;

• Multi-commodity cold storages for short-term and long-term storage of fresh horticulture products which require pre-cooling and varying storage requirements;

• Controlled Atmosphere storages;

• Refrigerated transport;

• Ripening chambers.

It is worth mentioning that this was the first attempt of any government agency to formulate such standards for cold chain projects in India. Government agencies like NHB, NHM and Ministry of Food Processing have also offered higher financial incentives for the new projects as well as for expansion of existing units. However, these projects have to be, essentially, based on modern and efficient technology in tune with the technical standards.

The Government has further established the National Center for Cold Chain Development for overseeing the overall development of cold chain industry in India. New technical guidelines have been issued under the Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH) with the norms for financial incentives for various cold chain projects.

With this scenario, one can hope that a scientifically developed cold chain, designed to handle, preserve and distribute the precious food products grown in the country, would turn into a ‘Gold Chain’ for the country.

Author

Arvind Surange is Fellow Ashrae and Chief Consultant/Proprietor of ACR Project Consultants Pvt Ltd. He has handled various projects including designing, planning and execution of various industrial refrigeration and air conditioning. He has been associated with cold chain industry for more than four decades, has pioneered the concept of ‘Green Cold Chain’ in line with the spirit of green building movement. He may be reached at acr.consultants@gmail.com.