Processing Solutions for Dairy Products for Longer Shelf Life

Mr. Raghunath K,
Country Representative,
thyssenkrupp India

By 2030, India’s economy is expected to be the second-largest in the Asia Pacific region, driven by middle-class households. During the same timeframe, India is also likely to be the most populous nation, home to over 600 million Indians under the age of 25. Further, this growth journey would be driven by urbanization as 40% of Indians are expected to live in cities by 2030. 

Urban consumers in India spend 84% more on food than their rural counterparts, given their access to a larger variety of premium foods, readily accessible via offline and online retail. As household incomes and new online retail models go up, spending on categories such as food and beverages is expected to increase 2 to 2.5 times the current spending. On the other front, due to poor supply chain management and lack of proper infrastructure, around 40% of India’s food wastes away on its way from the farm to the retail outlet. Only 10% of food is processed, and much of that processing is limited to rudimentary steps such as sorting, grading, and so on, rather than advanced food processing that adds value and preserves value.

As the country’s economy and population grow, India is witnessing a healthy curve in the consumption of dairy products. According to The Economic Survey 2020-21, dairy was the single largest agricultural commodity that contributed 5% to the national economy and employed more than eight crore farmers directly. Though 70% of Indians claim to follow some sort of a non-vegetarian diet, annual meat consumption in India is only 11 kg per person, whereas 148kg of dairy is consumed per person in a year. Dairy products like milk, curd, and yogurt are considered staples in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets with the sole exception of the recent advent of veganism. However, given the rising per capita consumption of dairy products, in the years ahead, Indians are likely to consume way more than 500g of dairy products per day, up from the current 405g.

It has become important to reconsider the processing solutions for dairy products for longer shelf life while maintaining the integrity of the products.

Scope for Food Processing Industry in India
The production and consumption of dairy products is growing. Further, with the onset of the pandemic and related restrictions, urban Indian consumers have reduced their daily rounds to the grocery stores and adopted the strategy to stock the consumables for a longer period. However, stocking up perishables such as milk in huge quantities at home is a challenge because pasteurization does not allow for a shelf-life beyond two days. 

The pandemic has also pushed the adoption of online ordering of meat, groceries, and other food items in India. With a 61% rise in home-cooking trend among urban Indians since India’s first Covid-led lockdown in Mar-20, the comforts of ordering food items online and getting them delivered home are also rapidly growing. The entry of direct-to-home startups paves the way for much-needed aggregation and scale for food processing in sectors such as meat and dairy products. As a result, the Indian food processing market is expected to grow at an 11% CAGR to €468 billion by 2026.

Rising Demand for Healthy Packaged Food
Consumers today are more conscious about the food they consume and prefer healthier choices. These health-conscious consumers prefer fresh and minimally processed foods that maintain high nutritional value.  
Dairy products follow a multi-pronged route to Indian homes. Milk is often delivered by agents or is primarily stocked up in exclusive booths of the brand. While all other value-added dairy products occupy a sizeable portion of the retail outlet’s fridge, milk enjoys the least space as it lasts only for two days. Milk companies, therefore, resort to stocking retail fridges with value-added dairy products such as yogurt, curd, ghee, cheese, cream, and flavored milk in large quantities, as milk fetches them rather thin margins. This is a scenario waiting to be disrupted, if and when the right technological solutions redefine the demand conundrum. 

HPP –Advanced Technology for Minimal Processing and an Improved safety 
Indian consumers are only used to heat treatment as a primary method for processing. The only current alternative is the use of preservatives and other additives that restrict or delay the decomposition of food by micro-organisms. Both these techniques have their disadvantages, as heat treatment often diminishes the nutritional value, and additives and preservatives change the original taste of the food unfavorably, thereby rendering an image that processing results in a loss in nutritional value. However, advanced technologies such as the High-Pressure Processing (HPP) are changing the rules of the game.

HPP is an advanced `ìn-pack´ technology that utilizes water at high pressures – to the order of 6000 bar – to inactivate spoilage and pathogen microorganisms without using heat or additives. The hydrostatic pressure works uniformly and instantaneously allowing a gentle and sophisticated treatment without detrimental effects on product or packaging integrity.  At the same time, HPP preserves the original, `fresh-like´ flavor, nutrients and bioactive substances.   HPP alters the food only in one way - by extending its shelf-life up to 10 times!

HPP-treated milk lasts up to 40 days, allowing for a longer retail cycle time. This can disrupt the way the Indian milk industry works. The early adopters of HPP in the Indian dairy sector can even potentially change the market construct, gaining a lasting competitive edge. 

Need for a Shift in Processing Solutions
While HPP already exists in India, only a handful of food brands have adopted the technology. Large volumes of brands are still tied to traditional food processing using thermal processing (pasteurization and sterilization). Once the shift from conventional methods to advanced food processing happens, the impact on the average Indian consumer’s access to food will improve drastically. With more Indians being able to access processed food, the increase in the size of the pie, not just the slice of the pie, would largely benefit packaged food brands and the nation as a whole. 

Given the already-strained infrastructure in the food segment, perishable foods require a fallback option. While investments from the government in Mega Food Park and cold chains can help, the focus of such infrastructure would be more on preservation from source to packaging unit. The larger onus is on the food brands to adopt processing solutions like HPP, which have the potential to ensure prolonged food safety and quality all along the supply chain, from the producer to the retail and finally, consumers and reduce farm-to-fork losses.