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Race on to mechanise production of indigenous Asian foods

23-May-2005

India's dairy industry is priming the country's research centres with funds in a bid to mechanise the region's indigenous foods sector ahead of moves to apply international food safety standards, Hridyesh Pandey reports.

Criticised last year by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service for its outdated and bureaucratic food safety regulation, India has recently moved to draft a unified and internationally harmonised food safety statute that could remove what the USDA described as a "significant barrier" to the country's agribusiness sector.

But India's indigenous foods, which have proven potential as exports, have been hampered by their inherent small scale, as well as by the hygiene issues borne of producing foods manually and in batches.

More than half of the 88.1m tons of milk produced in India is used as the raw material for food products, of which 60 per cent are indigenous products, such as the cottage cheese, chhana, and dairy based confectionaries, rasogalla and sandesh.

However, the entire indigenous food sector is built around cottage industries.

For these reasons, regional food technologists are now prioritising efforts to engineer mechanised production lines for these sectors.

One of India's largest and oldest technology institutes, IIT Kharapur in West Bengal, has unveiled mechanised production methods for chhanna and the popular Bengali sweet, rasogalla, and is now working on a production line for another dairy-based sweetmeat, sandesh.

In a programme sponsored by India's National Dairy Development Board http://www.nddb.org/, the IIT has built equipment that will produce sandash on a semi-batch production line, which combines and automates several of the previously distinct production phases.

Sandash, a fudge-style confectionary made from chhanna, is traditionally made in batches. The chhanna is coagulated and then has the water removed before being kneaded into a uniform dough and mixed with cane sugar. The chhana-sugar mixture is then heated in an iron pan with continuous scraping until it acquires the desired consistency and flavour. The cooked chhana sugar mixture is transferred to a shallow tray and allowed to cool and set. The product is then shaped using moulds of various shapes and sizes or cut into different sizes with a sharp knife.

Each stage requires handling, in environments where cleanliness is not always strictly observed.

According to Mr. Jatindra Kumar Sahu, who is developing the continuous sandesh production line, the IIT mechanised production reduces the chances of incorporating micro-organisms into the food after the acid coagulation, and cuts down on the energy requirements of the production process, thus offering additional benefits as a cost-saver.

Early research at IIT Kharagpur, in a programme headed by Prof. H. Das, also suggests that the mechanisation of sandesh production may extend the shelf-life and the nutritional value of the sandesh.

This could provide a further boon to the fortunes of the product on the export market.

In North America, the market for Indian dairy-based confectionery is already worth an estimated US$500m, and with around 10m Indians currently living in the West, European, North American and Australian manufacturers are keen to exploit the potential demand for Indian confectionery, known as mithais.

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