NutraInterview: Dominique Speleers, Beneo executive board member

Beneo: EFSA forced us to change our strategy


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Strategic shift: 'There was really no reason to talk to the consumer any more because we were not allowed to talk to the consumer any more.'
Strategic shift: 'There was really no reason to talk to the consumer any more because we were not allowed to talk to the consumer any more.'

Related tags European union European food safety authority Snack functional beverage beverage

Dominique Speleers is a long-time Beneo man who has seen a lot in his 15 years with the European ingredients giant from back when it was Belgian inulin and chicory player Beneo-Orafti and now as a board member of the more European, more international, more portfolio diverse, Sudzucker-owned Beneo Group.

Back in the earlier part of the 2000s the firm was pushing an ‘Intel-inside’ marketing model [the ubiquitous computer processing brand], trying to get its branded Beneo chicory-based inulin and oligofructose prebiotic ingredients inside as many food possible and have those foods bare its health-halo providing ‘Beneo’ mark on their labelling.

How powerful a business concept for consumers to recognise and seek out an ingredient brand…what better way to put the Beneo Orafti slogan - 'connecting nutrition and health' - into action than where the nutritional rubber meets the consumer motorway - on-pack and on-shelf.

The strategy was rolling along well enough until it hit a regulatory brick wall in the form of the EU’s tough new nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR) that came into play in 2008, and which saw the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rejecting swathes of health-nutrient associations, including prebiotics.

Beneo-Orafti was forced to take a long hard look in the strategic mirror that stood upon a European landscape where it was barred from making claims for its core ingredients across (then 26, now 28) EU countries encompassing about half a billion people. And the fall-out in other regions added on top.

Why bother trying to win consumer loyalty for prebiotic gut, immunity or weight management claims without any approved claims? Something had to give…

“The trigger of the change was EFSA and the NHCR which have not allowed us to make any claims until recently [defecation and sugar replacement claims have been approved by EFSA],” ​Speleers told us at Food Ingredients Europe (FiE) in Paris recently.

“There was really no reason to talk to the consumer any more because we were not allowed to talk to the consumer any more.”

Bye bye B2C…hello global B2B

Dominique Speleers: B2C marketing had most success in Spain. Then the EU adopted new health claims laws...

The B2C campaign had its biggest success in Spain, where the firm spent the most on consumer marketing and Spanish consumers bought into the healthful benefits on offer.

“It was a nice experience but it is over now. We can’t afford that any more. The timing was bad. The EU law changes were hurting our chicory business badly.”

“Plus we realised that talking to consumers was maybe a bit too ambitious but that is part of the Beneo blood to be ambitious. So I have no problem with it – you have to try and look back and change your strategy if needed.”

So Beneo-Orafti went back to B2B marketing while at the same time expanding into new regions – especially Asia and the Americas while retaining its European roots.

“We are still a European company but we do our very best to be more international every day and with our new strategy we have managed to significantly increase awareness of Beneo in Europe and outside of Europe.”

Speleers said the Beneo group planned to grow its business across all divisions by 20% “over the next few years.”

“We remain a profitable business.”

Science & communication

Beneo’s tradition of investing in science to back its wares remained unchanged, as did its commitment to communication of that science.

“We are committed to strong science based on multiple human voluntary studies – look at inulin oligofructose – we have 157 human studies there – so it is a massive amount of science," ​Speleers relayed.

mixed ethnic consumer

“But then what is really making us strong is that we combine this with intensive consumer research on a regular basis – roughly every three years we update our consumer research in order to make sure of two things. One is that the consumer understands the vocabulary we use; and this has to be different country to country.

“Second, that they value the benefits we bring with our science. Then we can tailor-make the communication country-by-country. So there is a constant dialogue with our customers, the consumers, our science and regulatory teams to come to something understandable and attractive to consumers.”

Understanding consumers meant going outside traditional markets and conducting studies in novel places.

“We never concentrate only on Europe and the US which are obvious markets – we want to go into countries where it is not so common to make studies. Thailand, Brazil, Indonesia, China, Russia, Australia, Mexico. On a regular basis we conduct research to really find out what is going on.”

In this way the firm was investing in 'regionalised' recipes. "We do good but we think we can do better."

“natural origins…”

Speleers said the firm would continue to expand its portfolio as it had done with fibre ingredients, proteins and rice ingredients and that acquisitions were not out of the question.

“That is indeed a possibility to extend the product range and we have a dedicated team to constantly watch the market and see if there is something that would fit Beneo and for sure,”​ Speelers said, noting a big theme with the company ('Power of Less') and others at the FiE trade show, “one of the criteria is natural origins. We feel this is part of our blood and I would be very surprised if were to acquire something that was not of natural origin.”

A definition of 'natural' would help tighten a market where many toyed with the limits of what 'natural' was, he said.

"Our message remains: you don't have to compromise on taste and pleasure to have healthy food."

Health claims

paperwork files

Of the health claims scenario in the EU, he said EFSA was removed from business reality – especially in terms of the speed at which it delivered opinions, regardless of its “pharmaceutical-inspired approach.”

"But many of the claims we lost we are getting back even if EFSA continues to have a different reading of prebiotics because while it accepts that prebiotics promote bifidobacteria in the gut, it still doesn't accept that increasedbifidobacteria in the gut will make you more healthy. They turn it around and say 'show us you will be less sick', but for us this is the problem because by then it is too late. For a down-to-earth person it is hard to understand but that's what we have."

Beneo earns about half its revenue in Europe and half in the rest of the world, with the Americas and Asia-Pacific dominating.

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