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New investment for plant-based foods company Alpro

12 May 2015

In March 2015, Alpro officially opened its newly extended production site, enabling them to double their capacity in their UK drinks facility. Food Processing took a look around the extended site.

Based in Burton Latimer in Northamptonshire, Alpro have opened its newly extended production site after a £28.5 million investment. The company is a leading pioneer in plant-based food and are the European market leader for soya-based food products, and the new investment enables the company to produce their expanded range of drinks on site, including coconut, hazelnut and almonds. Alpro focuses on low energy and water consumption, sustainable transport methods, local production and waste reduction. In 2011, Alpro became the first European food company to join the WWF Climate Savers Program, committing the company to cutting their CO2.

The company’s origins began in 1980 when Philippe Vandermootele set up a production plant in Madagascar to help locals feed themselves sustainably with soya-based foods. The company then relocated to Belgium where their head office is still based. The message of the company, although amended throughout the years, remains at heart the same. “We create delicious, naturally-healthy plant-based foods for the maximum wellbeing of everyone and with the utmost respect for our plant,” says Metin Fevzi, Plant Director at Alpro. And it works well within the remit of their parent company, WhiteWave. Previously a subsidiary of Dean Foods, WhiteWave has since spun-off as an independent company and owns Alpro, which fits into its business philosophy of making nutritious, innovative foods that champion environmental and social responsibilities. Alpro now employs more than 900 staff across Europe.

In 1989, the company constructed their first European factory in Wevelgem, and followed with the acquisition of their Issenheim plant in France in 1996. The Burton Latimer site was first constructed in 2000 with one UHT line before they added two more for their soya products, including chilled and flavoured. Today, Alpro has a turnover of €410 million and is the market leader in non-dairy plant-based products with a 43% market share. The company has branched out into five product categories for plant-based foods; milk, cream, desserts, yoghurt and margarine and its year-on-year brand sales are up by 25%. The plant-based category is growing at 21% and represents about two per cent of the dairy market. As more than one in five households now buy into the plant-based category, it’s certainly a growing market. Alpro itself added 510,000 new households to its customer base in 2014. 

And while Alpro is the leading brand for the company, its organic brand Provamel is also selling well into the UK market via health food retailers such as Holland & Barrett and Ocado. 

“The level of growth especially in the last few years has really accelerated as we launched almond products in 2012 and coconut in 2013,” says Sue Garfitt, Commercial Director at Alpro. “And the company is growing in every category, not just soya. Our drinks business in the UK has been a major part of that growth and we now have a 65.5% branded market share in the UK, with the plant-based alternatives to dairy market valued at £171.4 million. Sales of our almond and coconut drinks have doubled in the last year and along with our soya-based drinks and alternatives to yoghurt, it’s clear that demand is continuing to grow.” 

Fevzi attributes part of this growth to the new products that Alpro has introduced to the market: “Soya is our traditional market, and it’s growing steadily but we’ve also opened up our brands to plant power as well, introducing hazelnut, almond, coconut, rice and oat. And as a company, our ethos is to be healthy for people, and healthy for the planet. We’re less resource dependent than alternatives to Alpro products.” For example, soya drinks use 2.5 times less water to produce than milk does, requires three times less land and creates five times less carbon dioxide. 

Lord Livingstone, Minister of State for Trade and Investment, opened the plant
Lord Livingstone, Minister of State for Trade and Investment, opened the plant

This growth has led to Alpro needing to invest in their UK factory. The £28.5 million investment in UK production lines is pat of a total £94 million European investment plan. The European investment in new production lines has created three new drinks production lines in the Burton Latimer site, doubling its capacity from 75 million litres of soya milk to 150 million litres, which includes almond, coconut and hazelnut drinks. The investment brings production of almond and hazelnut drinks in-house. Across all three production sites in the UK, France and Belgium, there will be a switch of five packaging lines to Edge packaging, as well as five new production lines in the Belgian site.

At the Burton Latimer site, an entirely new building has been erected next to the existing site. The two buildings are linked by a corridor that segregates the factory to ensure that there is no threat of contamination from the allergens in the new processing lines, which contain nut ingredients. 

The original factory still produces soya drinks on three production lines, one UHT and two for chilled products. The lines are in production for 12 hours a day, with the rest of the time spent on maintenance or cleaning, and they run 24/7, except for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. “The standard UHT line produces 800,000 litres per hour, and the two chilled lines product around 500,000 litres a year,” explains Fevzi.

The new building houses a vast array of new technology. A new liquivertor formulation tank and associated pipeworks have been installed, with two more to be put in place during 2015. Three new formulation tanks and their associated valves and pipework have also been installed, with three extra formulation tanks to be added this year. Two new aseptic tanks have been fitted and two more will be installed this year. And a new steriliser has been installed, with a second to be added in 2015. 

A new CIP set has been installed to keep contaminated fluids away from the allergen-free side of the facility. The new CIP room has been designed to cope with the challenges of cleaning when dealing with allergens.

Other investments include a hot water double speed fresh filling line, three new tray packers and two robots for palletising, a new double speed fresh filling line and a new UHT filling line. “One of the benefits of building a new site is that you can design it to your exact specifications,” explains Fevzi. “Over in the new facility, we have a UHT line and a chilled production line, which is our twin speed line. And we even have room to expand in the future, as we have enough space to install a third line.”

Metin Fevzi, Plant Director at Alpro
Metin Fevzi, Plant Director at Alpro

The opening ceremony
Minister of State for Trade and Investment Lord Livingston officially opened the new facility. “Alpro is a success story,” Lord Livingston stated. “This major commitment to the Burton Latimer site sends a very clear and positive message about innovation and excellence to the UK food and drink industry and the benefits of using the support available from UKTI.”

Also attending the opening ceremony was Philip Hollobone, MP for Kettering, who said: “I am delighted to see a company which has had the vision to effectively create a new product category show such commitment to strengthening the local economy through increased employment.”

“Innovation and investment are of vital importance to Alpro,” agrees Garfitt. “In recent years, we’ve witnessed strong growth, developing from a company only marketing soy-based products into one focusing on more ingredients such as almond, hazelnut, oat and coconut, and on several categories such as drinks, plant-based alternatives to yoghurt and cream, and desserts. To be able to maintain this growth, we will have to invest strongly and the commitment we have made to this site demonstrates the huge potential we see in the UK.”

Investing in people
The new production site has already seen 35 new jobs created at the plant, with a further 15 to follow. “Not only is the new site a great investment for Alpro, but it’s also good for the UK economy and local economy,” says Fevzi. “We’ve filled a lot of the positions we needed to on-site and many of them have been skilled jobs. For example, if you look at our maintenance technicians, they are required to be able to fulfil a lot of roles in the company so we ran through a multi-stage process. Applicants were considered not only by their capabilities but also their vision for the future, and whether that works with what we’re trying to do as a company. Then applicants were assessed for their electrical capabilities and so forth. So we’ve invested a lot of time in making sure that our company has grown with the right people in place to help us achieve our next set of goals.”

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