By Ratnajyoti Dutta
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Cargill, the U.S. agribusiness giant, is investing in India's burgeoning processed food sector with a $73 million corn milling unit, the head of its India operation said.
India's 1.2 billion population is eating increasing amounts of packaged and processed foods, using the financial benefits of an economy growing at nearly 6 percent to try western staples from McDonald's to Knorr packet soups.
"We aim to start a corn milling unit with a daily 800 to 1,000 tonnes processing capacity by 2014," Siraj Chaudhry, chairman of Cargill India, told reporters on Tuesday.
The company, a bellwether of world commodity markets, is acquiring land at Davangere in Karnataka, the top corn-producing state in India, Asia's second-largest grower of the grain behind China.
The first phase of the processing unit at Davangere will be up and running by the third quarter of 2014.
"Our plant will cater to the growing demand for modified starch in the processed food segment," he said.
Demand for modified starch - produced from corn - as a sweetener and thickener for the food and drinks industry is growing at 10-15 percent in India, Asia's third-largest economy.
India harvested 21.6 million tonnes in the year to June 30, 2012, just short of the record 21.7 million tonnes in the previous year. Domestic consumption runs at 17 to 18 million tonnes a year.
Cargill also aims to increase its existing cooking oil refining capacities in the three plants that it runs in the world's top importer of vegetable oils.
India's output for edible oils meets only about half of its domestic demand. It mainly imports palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as a small quantity of soyoil from Brazil and Argentina.
Cargill plans to raise its current daily refining capacity by a quarter to 5,000 tonnes a day, investing about 1 billion rupees over the next two years, taking its total investment to more than $91 million.
(Editing by Jo Winterbottom and David Goodman)