"Consumer is the King" is the slogan by which modern marketing pundits swear by unfailingly to come up with new products with novel profiles and USP features. Convenience at the point of consumption has been the single most driving force in evolving new products that require minimum physical effort to prepare and consume within the confines of the house holds. If frozen food products and stabilized RTE preparations are occupying strategic position in super markets, it is because of the convenience factor. Within this group of products, competitors score over each other based on features like organoleptic quality, safety, nutritional superiority or organic credentials.
Mass customization, a relatively new concept was evolved to satisfy individual needs and wants of each customer at the point of sales. The present manufacturing infrastructure is tuned to mass production of products with some common acceptable denominators and is based largely on scale of economy. Fitting this concept calls for innovative thinking and interdisciplinary efforts. Success of such a concept will depend on the adaptability of the existing manufacturing systems to serve the new paradigm of mass customization. It is not that the concept is absolutely new because in many catering centers sufficient flexibility exists to assemble products from several individual ingredients to prepare, within a few minutes, RTE products with varying taste and flavor profiles. Subway chain, flourishing in the US and other developed countries, uses this concept in offering many products based on a dozen pre-processed ingredients, right in front of the customer after eliciting their preferences. There are many others who have adopted this logic and are doing well.
When mass customization is to be taken up by the processing industry, there is the challenge for producing a series of prefabricated components that can be purchased by the customer, taken home and make his own product for immediate consumption giving a greater sense of satisfaction than buying the packed foods with monotonous taste profiles from the markets. As human beings crave for variety in all spheres of activity, food is no exception and therefore the concept of mass customization could revolutionize the food industry in the coming years. Any such system when marketed, must give the customer a wide choice, based on the large multiplicity of combinations that can be obtained from a relatively modest range of components. Both sensory performance and functional diversity will determine the success of this approach. Prefabricated components like grated cheese, sliced cheese, cheese cubes, spreadable cheese, sliced meat, pickled vegetables, frozen precooked vegetables, precooked legumes etc are some examples of such components.
The acronym 'POSI' foods (point of sales individual), coined by one of the major players in the field even caters to individual health needs of the consumer. Using smart ingredients and special software and hardware programs it is possible to design and manufacture a customized food product on the spot for the customer who has keyed in a one-time entry of all the necessary health and preference data. The built-in health and nutritional guidelines, embedded recipes for food formulations and algorithms for delivery that align the composition with the health needs, enable the consumer to get the product within minutes at the point of delivery for consumption later.
It is doubtful whether Indian foods will be amenable to such high tech changes due to their very nature involving extensive cooking, use of a variety of spice ingredients and non-availability of pre-fabricated food components. The Chaat Foods, a truly indigenous system that is widely popular in India, is a rudimentary example of assembling RTE foods from individual preformed ingredients but it has not yet assumed any industrial proportion because of limited life of the components that go in creating the final product. The development of food processing in the country is still limited with small scale processors having scarce financial and technical resources dominating the industrial landscape. The freezing technology which holds so much promise is a non-starter with hardly any major player in the national scene. Retort pouch technology could be a possible route for creating POSI foods which only may be able to expand the market to any significant extent. A combination of a range of retorted component foods and a vast array dry mixes can provide a fillip for such futuristic food products in the country.