Opinion

How fresh is our food?

Thirukumaran Nagarajan | Updated on January 12, 2021

It’s time Indians focussed on the ‘farm-to-plate’ journey

India’s cultural diversity is often represented by its food.

While frozen foods and ready-to-eat meals have made a mark, India’s palate has thrived on seasonal delicacies governed by fresh, locally produced, and locally sourced food. In recent times, the demand for fresh produce in the country has increased even further, with a focus on health and dietary measures.

People, especially in metropolitan areas, are slowly changing their food choices, becoming more health conscious, and preferring healthy, local, and fresh over fast food. But do we actually know how ‘fresh’ our food is?

The food chain

From exotic to staple, Indians have had the distinct fortune of almost immediate access to a wide variety of fresh produce. But we, as consumers aren’t too aware of the chain of events that have led to that humble serving of aloo gobi landing on our plate.

Internationally, food safety has been a widely discussed topic over the last few years, both from a micro and macro perspective. While taste is definitely a big reason why fresh produce consumption is lauded, nutritive value is by far the most important one. Healthy eating is now more about where the food you eat comes from and how it got to your plate.

India’s fresh food production and distribution are by far one of the most complicated networks as far as supply chain management goes. Our fruits and vegetables go from harvest to production to sorting to storage to distribution and then finally to the end consumer. A glitch at any stage can leave fresh produce vulnerable to contamination that can result in either immediate health issues or concerns in the long run.

Take tomato, which is the staple for a simple daal or the fancier margarita pizza. Now, if the sliced or pureed tomato was exposed to food hazards, whether biological or chemical, it can result in serious implications to the quality and safety of that tomato. Pesticides often leave their trace residues on the tomato.

Finally, if not packaged properly, components of packaging materials migrate from the package to foods, once again leaving trace residuals in the tomato. Even the slightest hint of negligence or unhygienic practices at any stage of its lifecycle can nullify the innumerable health benefits of fresh produce. This is why it is imperative that from a macro and micro perspective, food safety should become the most important subject of conversation in India.

India’s agriculture sector is the backbone of the country but also needs to evolve. The food supply chain in our country is a complex maze and is exactly why traceability is the need of the hour. So, from a macro perspective, basic motivation in dealing with food safety is required.

Implementation of appropriate food safety legislation, robust technology-driven distribution channels to enable track-and-trace protocols, globally standardised food production practices, and widespread education in safe food handling could have important long-term benefits.

While at a micro-standpoint, Indian consumers should begin to ask and understand the ‘where’ and ‘how’ of their fresh produce. It is our right and duty to learn. Internationally, this is a standardised practice. For example, in the Netherlands, the food sector has monitoring systems that enable consumers to trace the origin of food items and if necessary, recall and destroy any unsafe products.

The sector is beginning to see the wheels of change set into motion, with a number of independent players and agritech start-ups addressing these concerns. By leveraging innovative technology, high-speed logistics infrastructure, and analytics, even the toughest food supply chains can be monitored end-to-end.

However, it is only when the end-consumer demands change does the implementation happen on a broader scale. So the next time you shop at your local grocery store, sabzi mandi, or retail chain, take a second to think about the journey that produce has taken from farm to plate.

The writer is CEO & Co-Founder, Ninjacart

Published on January 12, 2021

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