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Beyond the Last Mile

Thursday, December 7, 2017, 09:34 Hrs  [IST]

In November we celebrated a watershed in our lives. We shared it with friends over lunch in a historic stand-alone hotel owned by a very creative hotelier. Our guests were an eclectic mix of old Mussoorie families, entrepreneurs, academics and writers, and ideas sparkled like fizzing champagne: seemingly transient but with a lasting, challenging, headiness. When the party was over, and the farewells had been done, we saw the waiters clearing away the buffet. That got us wondering.

Every day in the thousands of public kitchens in our land, vast quantities of food are cooked. Inevitably, great amounts of these carefully prepared meals are trashed. It happens in langars, which are a social service unique to our land; at our glittering weddings which are among the most spectacular in the world; and in our up-market hotels and restaurants. When we were researching our book on the first five-star hotel in our National Capital, we spoke to the suppliers of raw materials to the great kitchens of this enormous enterprise. Trucks laden with fresh vegetables converged on Delhi’s markets from all over India, in the early hours every day. “Why have these carrots got mud on them?” we asked. “Because if the earth is removed they will spoil” the supplier said. Then he added “There is plenty of spoilage, maybe half, maybe more. Then, after it reaches the retailer, there is more wastage. What comes to the kitchen is perhaps only one-quarter of what is produced.” We remembered that perhaps when we visited a wholesale market during our travels. “We have warehouses to stock excess farm produce, don’t we?” we asked a trader. He didn’t conceal his contempt. “Do we? How many refrigerated warehouses are there for vegetables and fruit? Do they get uninterrupted electricity? How many refrigerated trucks? The government buys excess grain, but then how does it store it? In the open, under plastic sheets. Can’t that food be given free to the poor instead of to rats?”

We recalled those conversations today, as we sat sipping coffee after our guests had left. The government had set up a system to give subsidised rations to the deprived but the very system that was designed to ensure fair distribution was perverted. According to news reports, illiterate people were denied their quota by scheming middle-men who feigned a mismatch of identity details. Presumably that stock of grain, diverted from the poor was siphoned into the black market. The growing discontent of the have-nots had created both the French and Russian Revolutions. Can we, in the hospitality industry, do something to ease this social distress by reaching out, directly, to the needy? Yes, we can.

From the moment food is cooked, it begins to spoil: bacteria, fungi and other pathogens begin to attack it. In our homes we store leftovers in the fridge relying on our own immunity to fight the slight spoilage. Hotels, however, cannot afford to take this risk. And so food, which by most standards is perfectly edible, has to be trashed.

This is when we recalled that, when we ceased being an Indian Naval family and returned to our family cottage, fresh milk was brought to the door every morning by a dairyman who kept a herd of milch cattle in a neighbouring estate. Today we buy packaged milk which is rich and nutritious and has a very long shelf-life. Obviously, it has gone through a process which ensures that it will not spoil. A friend told us that it has been exposed to ultra-violet radiation which has destroyed all the micro-organisms that could spoil the milk.

If such a process could extend the life of ex-buffet food by just a week, or even less, it would project the hospitality industry in a very caring light. The next time you plan to up-grade those luxury rooms, or construct another ostentatious hotel, think again. There is a crying need to invent a compact, safe, cooked food sterilizer possibly based on UV and ozone, though the technology is really beyond our competence but well within the reach of our scientists. It’s also well within your corporate social responsibility.

In the food supply chain we must go beyond the last mile.

(The views expressed within this column are the opinion of the author, and may not necessarily be endorsed by the publication.)

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