There is a general perception that foods frozen and stored at -18C can be preserved indefinitely and of course there is some truth in this belief. A product well prepared through sound processing techniques to attain commercial sterility can be "preserved" for long and can be considered safe for human consumption. At temperatures below -18C no microorganism can survive and therefore from that angle the food is safe from any hazards of microbial origin. If this is so why is that manufacturers put a "best before date" on the label which makes many consumers throw the food after that date? There is a logic in such an approach because for a common consumer a good food has to provide sensory satisfaction besides being safe.
It is an elementary knowledge that physical changes do take place in frozen foods that can affect the texture in a significant way and the pace of such changes can vary from food to food. There are well documented data regarding the shelf life of different foods and invariably most foods taste different after 6-9 months frozen storage. There are color changes that may occur in meat, poultry and some vegetables while freezer burns often appear as brown spots on the surface of the product. Inadequate packaging can dry out the product causing undesirable textural changes. Improper storage conditions with fluctuating temperatures cause changes in crystal structure of the ice particles which again adversely affect the texture of many frozen food articles.
Commercial freezing is based on well established modern technologies and there can be no comparison of freezing with any other technology in keeping the original quality of food in tact. If most of the foods available in the western markets belong to the frozen category, the reason is that consumers have come to recognize that these products meet with their expectations fully. Further fillip to the frozen food industry was received when microwave heating system became omnipotent in almost all kitchens making it easier to thaw and reheat for consumption. The extraordinary success of frozen food industry in many rich countries is also attributable to the high per capita income, excellent transportation facilities, efficient nation-wide infrastructure, adequate storage facilities at homes and above all the predominance of animal based diet that cannot be preserved by other processes as efficiently as the freezing process.
Why is that frozen foods have not got a footing in India? Seminar after seminar it has been proclaimed since last fifty years that food industry in the country could not develop because of woefully inadequate infrastructure for manufacture, distribution, storage and retailing. This applies to frozen food industry also as efficient processing machinery is not easily available, required cold chain does not exist, frozen display facilities at the retail level are inadequate and storage capacity for frozen foods in the house hold kitchen is very small. Even the consumers find it difficult to buy frozen foods regularly as ferrying them from the retail store to homes takes time causing some thawing before reaching their refrigerators. Yet very little is being done to address this problem either by the industry or the government. Added to this the frozen foods costs are very high in India due to limited production volumes and unfavorable scale of operation. Unless there is a close linkage between the farms and the processing centers the viability of the industry cannot be assured and such linkages are conspicuous by its absence in India.
It is an irony that thousands of ethnic foods for which India is famous cannot be preserved even for a few days using any technology other than freezing and unfortunately practically no R & D work takes place in any of the two dozen food research set ups in the country, boasting of reasonably good development facilities. While through common sense many traditional products are being marketed under frozen conditions in some of the urban regions in the UK and the US to cater to the immigrant populations there, the processes adopted by the entrepreneurs cannot be considered optimum, requiring further research inputs to make them technologically efficient. National food research organizations like CFTRI, DFRL and major Universities carrying out food research must focus on this area as frozen foods will eventually become a main stream food industry out pacing all others within a decade.