The number of companies looking to reformulate or release new products using Reb A, the natural high-intensity sweetener from the leaves of the stevia plant, has boomed since the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued letters of no objection that it was generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in December.
However, there have been concerns that suppliers could struggle to keep up with anticipated demand.
Corporate vice president for supply chain at PureCircle Dorn Wenninger told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “Lots of people think – mistakenly – that supply chain will be a major limiting factor for stevia. I will admit that it’s complex…but we started expansion in advance of FDA GRAS, knowing that a lot of these projects take a long time…We will be more than doubling our Reb A production over the next 12 months, aiming to produce 10,000 metric tonnes globally.”
PureCircle’s Jiangxi plant has been running at full capacity over the past 12 months, producing 1,000 metric tonnes of stevia extract, including other steviol glycosides as well as Reb A. It expects to meet its new 4,000-tonne capacity over the year ahead.
If it does run at capacity, the expanded Jiangxi plant will produce 1,300 to 1,500 tonnes of high purity Reb A in the next 12 months, Wenninger said.
Waste and water
The plant expansion, on a 20 hectare site, includes water recycling facilities, meaning that all water used in producing stevia extracts can be returned to the environment at the same quality level, and an on-site biomass energy facility to provide electricity for the local community.
“Anyone who is scaling up needs a solution for the biomass,” said Wenninger. “We have outsourced electricity production because we are experts in Reb A, but not necessarily in energy.”
The expansion also includes a factory to convert residual leaf waste into animal feed, housing for 400 employees, and new warehousing for the 50,000-tonne annual throughput of stevia leaf needed to produce 4,000 tonnes of extract.
The upgrade and expansion program at Jiangxi took two years and at a cost of $32m, and Wenninger said that PureCircle is looking to further expand its global production.
China currently produces 90 percent of stevia leaf over a three month harvest period. By expanding further into South America and Kenya, the company hopes to take advantage of different seasonal harvest times around the globe, to create a year-round supply.
Expansion of its refining facility in Malaysia is expected to be completed by the end of 2010, doubling Reb A production capacity there from 1,000 to 2,000 metric tonnes a year.
PureCircle made its initial public offering on the London stock exchange in December 2007, in an effort to raise US$50m to fund expansion.