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French firms team up for integrated stevia supply

By Jess Halliday, 02-Mar-2011

Related topics: Sweeteners (intense, bulk, polyols), Market Trends, Stevia

A new joint venture for stevia between a French sugar producer, a flavour firm, and an ingredients supplier will offer manufacturers ‘leaf to spoon’ service for the sweetener.

The new organisation, to be called Stevia Internacional Europe, is being formed by ingredients supplier Lavollée SA, flavour company Mane, and sugar producer Cristal Union Group, which owns the Daddy and Erstein consumer brands.

Hervé Ory-Lavollée, chairman of Lavollée, told FoodNavigator.com that the three partners will have “roughly equal” shares in the venture. The supply of stevia will come from Argentine producer Stevia Internacional, with which Lavollée SA has had an agreement since mid 2009.

“The key of our project compared to competitors is that the stevia extracts are controlled through all the production chain – from leaves to spoon,” he said.

Mane has been working with stevia for the last decade – in particular on the best repartition of the various steviol glycosides. President Jean Mane said: “Our expertise in the creation of flavours and in sensory analysis will also enhance the organoleptic attributes of the various applications in which stevia extracts are formulated with specifically designed flavouring and masking solutions.”

Having sugar player Cristal Union on board is a major advantage, Ory-Lavollée explained, as although it has not had any activities in stevia before its experience in sugar beet will be transferable, particular when it comes to managing plantations.

“Growing stevia is different, but it’s the same business,” he said. Cristal Union also has extraction expertise through Burgundy, in which it owns a 40 per cent stake.

The association is expected to bring more clout when marketing stevia ingredients to major manufacturers.

“It may help by their power in marketing and sales force, and it may help us to bring in big names in food,” Ory-Lavollée said. Big names he has his eye on include the likes of Coca Cola and Danone, who are more familiar with Cristal Union than they are with a relatively small player like Lavollée.

Waiting for the Commission

European stevia is currently an industry-in-waiting, as the European Commission has yet to grant its approval of stevia sweeteners. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) gave a positive safety opinion on steviol glycosides in April 2010, in line with the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), which approves the use of steviol glycosides at 95 per cent purity or above.

“Most of our customers have not been able to launch because of regulatory delays,” said Ory-Lavollée. It is not clear exactly when the approval will be granted, but it is widely expected to be some time in 2011.

“Given the number of samples and small volumes we are supplying for pilots and testing, we see lots of companies are now preparing for launches.” Particular interest is seen in the dairy, beverage and confectionery categories.

In France stevia sweeteners with a high purity of the steviol glycoside Reb A have been permitted under a 2-year window in advance of full EU approval since September 2009. That has been helpful as it has allowed suppliers to start shifting volumes and also to provide a test market.

“A lot of foreign companies have been checking what has been happening in France. It allows them to study the market and see consumer reactions.”

On the other hand, being able to market stevia products in just one country has proven challenging for manufacturers with pan-European production and logistics, as they have had to carve out special arrangements for stevia-containing brands.

While Ory-Lavollée is positive that full EU approval will be granted before France’s 2-year window ends, he said discussions are underway with the authorities for an extension should one be required.