COVID-19 and food processing : Issues, challenges and road ahead

Dr Angam Raleng and H Dayanidhi Singh
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. With the COVID-19 virus spreading as quickly as lightning across the globe, and while countries grapple with the impending dangers that this virus presents to mankind, the economy is at the brink of collapse.
Economic activity started to take a hit yet again since March 2021, as the country faced its second wave of the pandemic. As a result, GDP forecasts were expected to fall, putting losses at over $38 billion if local lockdowns continued till June 2021. Unprecedented numbers in terms of infections and deaths recorded across the country led to another set of lockdowns in some parts, burdening the healthcare system.
Disruption from COVID-19 has left the global food supply chain shaken. It has also highlighted chasms in that supply chain, heralded the biggest change. Last spring’s COVID-19-induced product unavailability of essential items such as meat and poultry highlighted structural weaknesses across the global food supply chain. From farms to consumer packaged goods (CPG) middlemen to retailers and restaurants, the industry received a wake-up call to adapt to massive changes in consumer behaviour and to fortify supply chains with increased resilience, transparency and sustainability. Digital technologies will be critical in achieving these intertwined objectives.
College of Food Technology (COFT), CAU, Imphal is engaging in empowering farmers and food processors by sharing and giving ideas and technologies to face their challenges. COFT has identified some ideas and technologies to move forward in the light of COVID-19 impasse. Interested individuals and entrepreneurs can avail know-how from COFT at nominal cost.
1. Minimally processed frozen vegetables : Vegetable is a highly perishable item. If the produce cannot be sold in time, it is a catastrophe for the farmers. Issues faced by the farmers can be largely addressed by ensuring that their produce will not be lost. Fortunately, the Government is setting up many packing houses and cold storage. Many retail stores are also equipped with deep freezers.Minimally processed frozen vegetables are a simple yet impactful idea that cannot only prevent loss but increase employment too. In this technology, vegetable (e.g. Carrot) are pre-cooled, if necessary, and cleaned, washed, cut, packed and quickly frozen. It is then stored at cold storage. The product can be kept for at least a year without any significant nutritional and sensory lost.
2. Food fortification: The majority of people's eating habits deprive them of the nutrients they need on a daily basis. Food fortification in simplest term is the process of intentional adding of micronutrients (essential trace elements and vitamins) to the food without altering the familiar look, taste and texture of the foods.Iodised salt, Vitamin E fortified vegetable oil, Vitamin D fortified milk are some examples. FSSAI also mandated some product like oil and milk to be fortified. Fortification gives rise to new opportunity for entrepreneurs to look for business during COVID-19 pandemic. It also boosts immune system and help to defend COVID-19. Fortification is already picking up in Manipur. Vitamin D fortified milk is being produced by Manipur Milk Co-operative Society under its ‘Chumthang’ brand with the aid of Tata trust. Food Safety Enforcement Directorate, Govt. of Manipur has also started drive to fortify all local vegetable oil, milk and even wheat flour. In addition to the above success COFT, Imphal developed “Super kabok” which has been showcased in the recently held CAU Regional Agri Fair in March, 2021 at Central Farm, CAU, Imphal. The black rice in “Super kabok” has been fortified by the goodness of flaxseeds and chia seeds.
3. Instant soup premix: Soups are generally consumed before lunch and dinner as tonic. It is even more used as principal food during illness. However, preparation of fresh soup not only takes time but is a tedious process itself. However this issue can be largely solved by‘Instant soup premix’. The technology for production of instant soup premix is developed by COFT. Recently, COFT developed soup premix from Heikak (Water caltrop). It is highly stable, healthy and natural. The product can be manufactured by food processors/entrepreneurs using the process know-how of COFT. Heikak, being considered as one of the underutilized crop in Manipur and elsewhere in India, the invention of this “Instant soup premix” will allow the possible use of heikak to be diversified, and heikak growers/farmers will be benefited as they will no longer be afraid of not being able to sell their fresh heikak in the market during this COVID-19 pandemic. So, with the conversion of this fresh heikak to dried powdered form, food processors/entrepreneurs/SHGs will be able to use it not only in the preparation of “Instant soup pre-mix” but also can be utilized in the production of bread, biscuits, cakes, pasta, extrudates, pudding etc.
4. Dried fruit/candy: Fruits are an essential part of a healthy diet that can boost immunity. Fruits that are popular and quite abundantly available in Manipur, such as pineapple, lemon, orange, lime, kiwi, passion fruit, and others, can be processed into a variety of products, including whole dry fruit, cut and dried, osmo-dehydrate product, and others, which can be dried using a solar dryer, mechanical dryer (Tray dryer), or sugar syrup, among other methods. This dried and candy versions of the different fruits that is available in Manipur will not only help in fulfilling the nutritional requirements, and providing immunity boosting food products but also it can be stored for a longer period of time thus increasing the shelf life of the products thereby making it available all the year round. Also, this will help the farmers to generate extra income and can serve as an alternate source of income during this COVID-19 pandemic since the fresh fruits they grow may rot and go unsold in the market.
5. Cereal products: Cereal is one of the most neglected products in terms of innovation. Roasted/ puffed cereals with Gur (Jaggery) is perhaps the only cereal product consumed since ages. COFT developed some new value added products that would not only be benefited from the added nutrition from the new products but also would be of immense value to food entrepreneurs. Instant Chakhao kheer premix, Chakhao noodle, Chia+Flax impregnated rice ball are few recent innovations from COFT.
In the wake of the pandemic and its economic impact, many consumers around the world are facing immediate pressures on immediate needs (health and disposable income). This is resulting in new purchasing patterns that we believe will stay relevant in the next year, such as growing preference for preventive health products (like immunity-boosting foods) and  increased demand for packaged food – especially when the packaging is able to reassure consumers on the safety of the content, for instance by being ‘tamper-proof’ sealed. At-home consumption occasions have also gone through some re-shuffling, and this opened the door to more frequent snacking and indulgence moments, besides offering more occasions for home cooking. Our innovation legacy gives us the privilege and the responsibility to continue to help manufacturers cope with this new landscape of consumer needs and concerns.
We believe that the industry must embrace speed and agility now more than ever as we all begin to navigate a post-Covid landscape.

(The writers are Assistant Professors at College of Food Technology, CAU, Imphal)
For further details, please contact Public Relations and Media Management Cell, CAU Imphal, by email to [email protected]