Speaking on the company’s second quarter earnings call, Ahmed added: “The current behavior in the market doesn't strike us as very economically rational at the moment.”
Tate & Lyle - which is the global market leader in sucralose with manufacturing plants in Singapore and the US - has “some of the most efficient assets in the business", he said.
“We're still making money on sucralose. But at certain prices that we see in the market, it's very unclear to us [how rivals are making a return]."
Asked by an analyst whether "with margins having gone from about 40% to 7%, what confidence can we have that the prices aren't going to continue to decline and this isn't going to be a major loss making business?", he said:
“We choose to stay away from the kind of volume where we cannot see how we - or frankly anyone else for that matter - can make any money. And if somebody wants to go after that volume and just have a loss-making enterprise, they can be our guest. But we will choose to compete very rationally.”
If somebody wants to go after that volume and have a loss-making enterprise, they can be our guest
He added: “While SPLENDA sucralose remains a valuable part of our sweetener platform, it now represents approximately 10% of Specialty Food Ingredients' profit, and is no longer the key driver of this division's profitability.”
While competition from China has intensified, the longer-term prognosis for sucralose is good and demand is still rising, said Ahmed, but working through the short-term issues had prompted some soul-searching in the boardroom.
“What is the best way for us to maximize value for shareholders long-term on this business? [Do] we choose to effectively walk away from some volume? We may decide we want to do that…”
On the plus side, Tate & Lyle’s Purefruit monk fruit sweeteners and Tasteva stevia sweeteners “continued to grow at strong double-digit both margin-wise and volume-wise”, although they were still very small in comparison to the sucralose business, he said.
The view from China: A shake out is coming
Chinese manufacturer Niutang Chemical agreed that sucralose pricing was not realistic, adding that it was simply a matter of time before some smaller, less efficient, players in China exited the category.
Nancy Hughes, Vice President Sales and Marketing, Niutang US, told FoodNavigator-USA: "Our success is based upon a long-term, sustainable business model. Some in the food and beverage industry might assume that all sucralose producers from China are equal, but that is an incorrect assumption.
"Any knowledgeable buyer knows that producing high-quality sucralose, running a safe and disciplined facility, and adhering to stringent environmental standards comes with costs.
"We have said before, and we say it again, the market is unsustainable at today’s prices."
She added: "If I were the end user making a purchasing decision on sucralose, I would definitely partner with a reputable, long-term producer. The ability to sustain will prove to be too intense for the less experienced."
We have said before, and we say it again, the market is unsustainable at today’s prices
Pengfei Mu, regional sales manager at Techno Food Ingredients USA, added: "Rational competition is essential for any company which wants to have a sustainable development."
Longer-term, however, the prospects looked sunnier, said Edward Wang, director (North America) at fellow Chinese manufacturer New Trend: "When we talk about sucralose, it is still a growing product in the world and it is obvious that sucralose is currently the main sweetener for a wide range of applications."
But he added:"Due to the over-supply, there is irrational competition in the market. Honestly no one would like to see this happen. We have to let the market perform its function of getting rid of over-supply."
Tate & Lyle’s adjusted sales of £1.38bn in the second quarter of 2014 were 21% lower year-on-year (13% lower on a constant currency basis), while adjusted operating profit of £117m was 37% lower and adjusted profit before tax of £104m fell by 40% (34% in constant currency).
Meanwhile, having to shut down its Singapore sucralose facility for an extended period in the first quarter following an industrial accident had not helped matters, said the company.