Chinese trade team tours SunOpta Alexandria plantIt’s lean. It’s green. It is a powerful little bean.
By: Wendy Wilson, Alexandria Echo Press
It’s lean. It’s green. It is a powerful little bean.
SunOpta in Alexandria hosted a tour of its plant and met with a Chinese trade group Friday, hoping to build a relationship and encourage imports into China.
SunOpta’s Alexandria plant produces organic beverages, including soymilk, under several labels, like Trader Joe’s, Rice Dream, West Soy, Tazo Chai, and Kirkland. They even recently developed a new sunflower milk product.
Their products are a boon to consumers who are lactose-intolerant or are looking for increased fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.
While some experts have touted soybean’s potential health benefits, such as in combating heart disease, others have spoken about possible risks associated with elevated consumption of the bean.
Nevertheless, soybean production and sales have grown in recent decades.
Soybeans represent Minnesota’s largest exported value crop, Minnesota Soybean Regional Communications Specialist Jessica Dornink said.
“Every fourth row of Minnesota soybeans is exported,” she said.
Between 1996 and 2009, soy food sales increased from $1 billion to $4.5 billion, according to the Soyfoods Association of North America.
SunOpta currently exports its products to Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. But it has been unable to break into the Chinese marketplace.
“At this point, we have not been successful to get something going, but we see [China] as a market for us,” SunOpta General Manager Curt Petrich said prior to meeting the group. “There will be success eventually in China.”
China’s reasons for not importing food-grade soybean products were two-fold, according to Tom McKay, SunOpta international sales and logistics representative. China imposes a tariff import tax and a value-added tax.
The high value added tax of 13 or 17 percent on most imports to China created a significant challenge.
McKay remained optimistic, however.
“We have some good contacts over there [in China],” he said. “That is what it takes. Persistence.”
SunOpta’s highly automated Alexandria plant has about 150 employees, boasting five production lines and 12 tanks. The tanks hold 13,000 gallons of product. The liquid is heated to 290 degrees, cooled and sent to a sterile tank. About 100 boxes are produced each minute.
China is Minnesota’s largest importer of soybeans, garnering two-thirds of exports, according to Dornink. However, this is primarily in the form of soy meal, not human food grade.
China produces about 15 million metric tons of soybeans, of which it uses about 10 million tons.
But Chinese manufacturers are seeking a consistent supply and unpredictable weather is a concern.
“I am sure that they were impressed with what we do and all of the technology and quality testing procedures in place,” McKay said after the group left. “Time will tell as far as their response… [We are] hopeful that this leads to something good in the near future. It is a work in progress.”
After touring SunOpta’s soymilk plant on Friday. The group planned to visit a soybean farm in Clearwater.
The U.S. Soybean Export Council, American Soybean Association, United Soybean Board, Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Midwest Shippers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council arranged the team and tour.
Prior to arriving in Minnesota, the trade team attended the 2011 Grain and Soybean Export Shipping Conference in Seattle, Washington.