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Special Edition: Asia

Facing the challenges of Chinese ingredient sourcing

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 24-Sep-2010
Last updated on 24-Sep-2010 at 13:16 GMT2010-09-24T13:16:12Z

China’s reputation as an ingredient supplier has suffered from a spate of food safety problems – but the food industry should not paint all China-based companies with the same broad brush, says stevia supplier GLG Life Tech.

China is one of the fastest growing markets for food ingredients and additives, accounting for about 15 percent of global trade, according to a recent Leatherhead report. But the melamine-tainted milk scandal that began in 2008 – killing at least six children and sickening about 300,000 – unleashed a wave of criticism and increased scrutiny from the west.

James Kempland, vice president of marketing at GLG Life Tech, told FoodNavigator-USA.com that with the right checks in place, there is no reason for western food and beverage makers to avoid Chinese-sourced ingredients. GLG is a major player in the stevia market and although it has a corporate headquarters in Canada, it has always been very upfront that its agricultural production, processing and extraction facilities are China-based.

“People in the west have a tendency to lump everybody together,” Kempland said. “…We are aware of the fact that we deal with the issue of Chinese production and associations of that in the west.”

GMPs

He said that the key for food and beverage manufacturers looking to Chinese suppliers for ingredients – as with suppliers in any other part of the world – is due diligence, making certain that plants comply with good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and are independently audited.

Kempland said: “There have been certain specific issues within the Chinese manufacturing system, but why is that broad brush so widely painted? We have gone through the rigors so I think it’s fair that companies should be looked at and judged on an individualized basis instead.

“…Every one of our plants has been audited by global auditors. In order to be considered a global supplier on a scale like Coke or Pepsi or Cargill, we have to comply with standards like any company in the world would.”

Chinese benefits

Kempland explained that stevia could theoretically be grown in other parts of the world, including the US or Europe, but “the product on a molecular level is the same …It would be done more from a marketing perspective rather than from a technical or production standpoint.”

However, for GLG there are three main reasons for growing and processing stevia in China: Lower labor costs for an agricultural product that needs to be hand-harvested; a large labor pool; and the fact that due to Japanese demand stevia had already been growing in China for decades before the US Food and Drug Administration issued its first letters of no objection that stevia was generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in December 2008.

It is expected that Europe-wide approval will follow suit soon, after the European Food Safety Authority gave a positive opinion on the safety of stevia extracts in April this year.

“All of the procedures that we put in place, even at an agricultural level, were done with marketing to the west in mind,” said Kempland. “…Working with the industry on an international level has been extremely useful.”

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