Blue Diamond, which already operates the world’s largest almond processing facilities in Salida and Sacramento, says the new site will eventually yield half a million square feet of manufacturing space over 15 years in a bid to meet surging demand for almond products.
The plan is to build in three phases, global ingredients division head Bill Morecraft told FoodNavigator-USA.
Phase one, which should be operational by May 2013, will provide about 200,000 square feet of building for manufacturing new almond products, he said.
“Phase one will be for basic blanching slicing and dicing. What we do in phases two and three will be determined by where we see demand at the time – so it could be additional roasting capacity or any number of innovations. This is the biggest investment we have made in decades."
On course to break $1bn sales barrier in 2-3 years
Blue Diamond, which produces ‘brown’ (whole) almonds in Salida primarily for the confectionery market, and almond ingredients and finished consumer products in Sacramento under the Blue Diamond brand, handles almonds from its 3,000+ member growers, which together account for a sizeable chunk of the California almond crop.
The world's largest almond marketer and processor, Blue Diamond turned over $825m last year and is on course to break the $1bn sales barrier in the next two-to-three years should current trends continue.
Ingredients sales have increased by 50% in the past two years
While the Blue Diamond branded consumer products business garnered most of the headlines owing to launches such as Almond Breeze and Nut Thins, the ingredients business, which supplies some of the world largest food manufacturers with sliced, slivered, diced and ground almonds, is making equally impressive progress, said Morecraft.
“Ingredients sales have increased by 50% in the past two years alone.”
A lot of this growth is coming from China, which has emerged from nowhere to become a huge customer of roasted, salted and flavored almond products, he said.
“I think when we first saw this explosive growth, some people thought it was a fad, or that it couldn’t be real, but it has just continued to grow and grow.”
Almonds: The number one ingredient nut
The California almond crop has been growing steadily for 40 years, but things really took off after the turn of the century, with the crop almost doubling in size from 1bn pounds in 2002 to a projected 2bn pounds in 2012, said Morecraft.
“California now produces around 80-85% of the world’s almonds. Today we are reaping the benefits of big plantings in the mid-1990s.
“But I expect prices to firm up a bit in the coming years as demand is growing worldwide at 10% year on year and supply is not keeping up with that.”
Several factors are contributing the meteoric rise of almonds, including rocketing demand from China and India, a growing interest from manufacturers interested in their health benefits, rapid growth in the dairy free market (almond milk sales were up 79% past year in the US), wider use in ready-to-eat cereals and healthy snacks, plus continued demand from more traditional bakery and confectionery customers, he said.
Ounce for ounce, almonds have more fiber, calcium, vitamin E, riboflavin and niacin than rival nuts
While many nuts contain healthier monounsaturated fats, and several nuts are eligible to make a qualified health claim about heart disease risk reduction, almonds were also particularly high in protein, fiber, vitamin E, calcium and Riboflavin compared with their fellow nuts, he said.
“There is also a growing body of research on the role almonds can play in weight management and satiety. And it also appears that the calorie content of almonds has been overstated.”
Challenges and opportunities
So what keeps Morecraft awake at night? The weather, and access to water, he says, “although that is a long-term strategic challenge for California as a whole.”
And what about food safety concerns? Could a food safety scandal of the proportions of the 2009 peanut-salmonella scare engulf the almond industry?
“I actually see the increased regulation in this area – primarily the Food Safety Modernization Act – as an opportunity for us to really show our strength in the marketplace," said Morecraft.
“You see recalls on peanuts and pistachios, but the almond industry in California has been ahead of the curve on safety.
“All almonds shipped in California are pasteurized and we are building a world class production facility at Turlock that will be supplying our own consumer branded products, so it is clearly in our interests to get this right, because it is our brand name on the line as well, and big branded food customers are reassured by that.”
Almonds are California's largest food export and they rank among the top ten food exports in America.