Food loss and its relationship to cold-chain

by Pawanexh Kohli

Food has one end-use, to be consumed… food loss or waste occurs when food is not consumed - or, when food perishes before it could reach the market within its normal saleable life cycle.

Food loss can be reduced... only by ensuring that all the harvested produce reaches its intended end-use. This means that a food delivery mechanism must also aim to counter the perishable nature of food, to extend its saleable life cycle, and reach shelves within that period. Cold-chain is this method for fresh foods.

Cold-chain does not preserve endlessly... it applies technology to merely extend the marketable life span of a perishable product, for a finite duration, with a market in mind. This time in hand, is to be fruitfully utilised, not wasted in-situ storage, especially when dealing with high perishable fresh produce.

Cold-chain buys time to reach markets... by temporarily countering perishability, it gives produce owners more time to reach distant buyers, expand their market footprint, so as to realize greater economic value. This in turn promotes gainful livelihood and justifies any efforts to increase production.

Saleable life ... can reduce loss, if utilized to reaching closer to, or at shelves. Consumers complete the cycle by purchasing the product as food. Food lost in the delivery chain is extension avoidable loss, and that in the hand of consumers is called waste.

Cold stores reduce food loss - This premise is flawed and propagates a derived understanding, leading to complacent yet unsound expectations. Cold stores are only one piece of the cold-chain. All inventory is time-limited, even grains will lose nutritional value and eventually perish if left in storage – store only to buffer against episodic demand.The time matrix is determined by the saleable lifespan of the product and time taken to access the markets. This logic applies not just to foods but all products. Supply chain intervention is best used to reach more shelves and increase reach to more buyers.

Physical loss of food has a multiplier effect in associated waste of input resources. Six apples lost means a loss of >500 litres of water used to produce them. A dozen tomatoes translates into >200 litres of water. To this add power, fertilizer, waste disposal, etc. The total impacts our ecological footprints.

Food loss adds needlessly to greenhouse emissions, contributing to climate change. The answer is not to stop producing food but to bring the production to gainful end-use.

Food loss isn't just related to a Food Crisis but relates to an Ecological Crisis.

Understand cold-chain as a bridge, not merely as a storage system. When used as a physical conduit, cold-chain is always successful as it offers recourse to expand the geographical reach of producers, links to markets. It is extended outreach to markets that will ensure that produce can be gainfully used, lead to the reduction in food losses, and give real cause to produce more at farms.
Without market access, all food will eventually perish, unused; to be lost even if stored within temperature controlled environs. Hence, storage is a zero-sum solution unless used to facilitate market access, as a piece in the chain.

Cold-chain is only a logistics tool, a service that uses cooling and other techniques, to make it feasible to expand the selling range of the farmers, to reach out and take the produce to where it could not normally be supplied.

Without cold-chain all will be lost ... with cold-chain  connectivity there is scope to reach the produce to gainful realisation.

Refrigeration brings about intrinsic challenges in fresh produce care, which when not understood, can make its application the premier cause for food loss. Cold-chain is not just about cooling, but includes specialised post-harvest handling in the supply chain of fresh produce. Cold-chain also helps to organise the business of agriculture.
India's cold-chain successes are many and echo in the eradication of polio - from a peak of 350,000 infected per year; in being the world's largest exporter of beef - albeit carabeef, yet >1.5 million tons shipped; in being counted among the top 10 exporters of fresh grapes; in having the world's largest dairy production and consumption; in being among the largest exporters of poultry and eggs, etc. In all these cases, reaching out to the users took precedence.

"Refrigeration itself is not the cure; market linked cold-supply-chain can be !"

Failures in cold-chain are where its usage remained fledgling, misunderstood - namely, in the domestic trade of various fresh fruits and vegetables. An area that needs multi-disciplinary skills akin to life care - knowledge of biology, physics, logistics and time management, not mere refrigeration skills alone.
Without access to markets, the loss in the fresh food sector is large (and crop specific). Because of limited time, range and market links, after a short period, all that remains unsold turns into a loss , even if in a cold store. Luckily, some of the would-be-loss of fresh produce can be used as raw material for processing into food products.

Food processing - though may apply temperature control technologies, must be differentiated from cold-supply-chain - is essentially a manufacturing process to physically/chemically transform raw whole produce into other food formats and can also help alleviate losses.
However, that involves adding even more resources into a second stage of food production, and not merely as inputs into the distribution or delivery system. The processing line was once touted as a grand solution that would preserve and mitigate food loss, but this may not stand true, as economies develop.
At every stage of economic development, as consumers become more affluent, the demand for fresh whole foods evidences growth. If one can afford it, fresh is preferred to canned or tinned variety. Top quality fresh apple or orange will fetch a higher value than bottled juice which is from reject grades.
Some pre-cooked or processed products like convenience foods - sweets, sauces and condiments are unavoidable. These mainly supplement a meal or manage an inconvenience. The pre-cooked meal on an aircraft or a handy snack as quick-fixes are commonplace now, but are unlikely to replace fresh meals. It is highly improbable that the mainstay of our agricultural economy will be the processed foods sector. In its stead, focus is needed so that the preliminary production, off-the-farms, is wholesomely connected to the kitchens of our urban end-user.
Processing is normally pursued when all alternatives to deliver fresh food for immediate value realisation have been exhausted or are not easily feasible.
Food processing is best applied when extracting value from non-table variety fresh produce, or where non-saleable culled material is transformed into food products, mixtures or ingredients, typically being preserved for longer than natural periods. Non-food processing - composting, dye making, medicinal, etc., is another end-use that also helps recover agriculture losses.
Today the cold-chain gap is acute in fresh fruits & veggies segment, the market is ready and the delivery systems are not. In case of milk, meats, dairy, ice-cream, etc., the market and the trade develops in tandem with cold-chain.
Cold-chain needs to progress towards delivering fresh quality in quantity, well within the limited time span on offer. Mere presence of technology is not the end-all... any applied science must target an effective end-result.

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