Cargill continues growth with Belgian chocolate processing facilities
Being famed as one of the centres of the confectionery industry has given Belgium an enviable reputation, as Neill Barston found visiting Cargill’s key production site, with the company now becoming a sponsor of the World Confectionery Conference
With some of the finest luxury chocolate offerings continuing to stem from Belgium, it is little surprise it retains a special place in the hearts of consumers, as much as professionals working across the industry.
The nation’s close association with the sector dates back to the 17th century, when the country was under Spanish control, which saw the region first exposed to chocolate’s delights with examples being brought back by European explorers to South America.
Then, the country took confectionery to a higher level with the development of the praline by Louise Agostini, wife of Jean Neuhas Jr, in 1915, cementing its place in the heart of the confectionery world. Consequently, it has played host to a number of major manufacturers including Cargill, which has seen its site rapidly expand at Mouscron, close to the border with France and the vibrant cultural hub of neighbouring Lille.
The company’s confectionery interests have evolved significantly over nearly two decades, as part of the firm’s wider international agri-business that employs a global tally of 160,000 employees. Its key progress within the sector was Maintaining a high bar of confectionery quality recently demonstrated at the Food Ingredients Europe trade fair in Paris last December, which saw significant product showcases.
Among the most notable items unveiled were offering for high quality milk chocolate devised with 30 per cent sugar reduced formula, devised with its development teams’ sensory science resources. The event showcased its broader range of filling fats, vegan-friendly.alternative for gummies, as well as sweetener systems for use in products such as cookies and brownies (the latter using its own brand Gerkens cocoa powder for the bakery market), completing its range. But it is perhaps the company’s chocolate offerings that have commanded headlines in recent months, working with a host of global confectionery groups. So the opportunity to explore the firm’s main production site in Mouscron offers a chance to experience its ever evolving portfolio of products.
There seems a strong degree of optimism among the team for my visit, in the wake of a $5 million site investment targeting the delivery of its sugar-reduced chocolate. It’s a move that chimes well with current market demand growing within the luxury product segment, making this a notable area of focus for the business. As project manager Anne-Cecile Duhem explains as we tour the facilities, when the business first set up in the area more than 15 years ago, the site was just arable land being grazed by sheep – which has now been transformed into an agile business serving a global client base.
“When you start in the chocolate business, it’s difficult to leave. It’s a very nice product, as well as being a good company that has a lot of passionate people working here. “So it has been a really exciting working environment,” she adds, outlining the site’s ongoing development, which has undergone several notable milestones in its relatively short lifespan. It’s clearly a well-drilled operation, split into two carefully organised production areas, with conventional lines mirrored by an entirely separate unit on site devoted to nut free production of chocolate products, addressing the ever-growing market for ranges devised for those with specific food allergies.
According to Duhem, it is challenges such as this, as well as devising products with reduced sugar and more specialist lines for the growing vegan market, that offer significant tests for the 150 or so employees making up the total base of staff at the facility. “I’m really attached to this site here at Mouscron, as I’ve been working here since 2006, so it’s felt like my baby, as I was production manager in the beginning, and now I am involved in the extension project here, which has expanded my experience. I think it has been quite an adventure here, with new lines being developed all the time, which has made it very interesting,” enthuses the project manager, who says that her degree studies in food engineering offered a platform for corporate life within Cargill.
Continuing the tour of the site, we explore some of its production processes, including the industrial scale conche mixing systems, which are being pressed into action preparing a broad range of chocolate batches. Exploring further into the production halls, we also take in the site’s moulding facilities, which just happen to be fashioning a line of luxury dark chocolate drops – just one of many product styles the company is capable of delivering. As Duhem notes, the site is designed around a core requirement of being particularly flexible with the bespoke orders that are placed with its teams.
There’s certainly no one-size-fits all approach adopted here. “We have tried to place delivering excellence as a key factor, and we have set the bar very high, which is why we have such a good plant,” Duhem says. “I would say our biggest challenge is in delivering the best projects possible in line with business expectations – we have in place very strong processes to follow and are well prepared avoid issues with budgets and planning.
“My objective is to be in scope, within budget and on time with the work we do here, which are our three pillars,” she notes, saying the facility was strategically chosen for its prime location to some of its major customers based in Benelux, France and Germany. Having opened in 2003, she explains that it swiftly doubled its production capabilities within three years, and further extensions just over five years ago (worth around €35 million), enabled the doubling of liquid chocolate production and warehouse capacity. Furthermore, a dedicated line for dark chocolate, representing an investment of around €12 million, was also added in 2018.
This enabled considerable expansion of its ranges, which carry the much sought after certified status of being Belgian chocolate. Key performance Speaking to Confectionery Production on the company’s performance and priorities, Miriam van Wanroij, global product and process manager at Cargill, says the company’s chocolate processing facilities remain in a strong position. “I think the issue of sugar reduction in confectionery and chocolate is a very important one.
This has been shown through a study we did on the subject with 8,000 people from 10 countries, which found that consumers’ behaviour is changing. “They are increasingly aware of health aspects of their diets, so they are looking for products that are seen as being healthier, and our research found around 55 per cent of people are willing to pay more for these kinds of items, so there is a lot of demand for this.
“The rate of growth within the EMEA market is now around nine per cent a year, compared to four per cent for regular confectionery. “So, I think it is crucial that we develop sugar reduced chocolate, and we have the knowledge within our company to be able to do this.”
As she notes, the €5 million recently invested in the Mouscron site is set to play a crucial role in expanding its capabilities, with its new facilities including advanced dosing systems for each product line. Van Wanroij adds that there are plenty of technical complexities to master in terms of product formulation – which are by necessity highly guarded for commercial sensitivity reasons.
She adds: “In reducing the level of sugar, you have to put something back in its place, which we have done a lot of research and testing on. “We’ve looked at all options for this, looking at milk powders and how they can be replaced, as well as examining the use of proteins. Creating the right sensory experience is really important, as altering the sugar levels can impact on taste, so we look at all the options that are available to us and come up with the right solution for each customer. “With the investment that has been made at our Belgian facilities, we can ensure that those requirements are met,” explains the specialist, who says that devising the right taste profile was critical, and that its systems had the potential to reduce sugar by up to and exceeding 30 per cent if required.
Furthermore, she adds that direct consumer research had shown that its formulations for chocolate series with less sugar had tested positively with consumers, who rated these offerings as good if not better than their full sugar equivalents.
As she reveals, the company has a number of tools at its disposal, which includes its range of texturisers, edible oils and sweeteners, which have so far enabled the business to engage with major confectionery manufacturers around the world.
Another segment that the business has paid close attention to is the vegan and dairy free segment, working on chocolate products to satisfy what the company acknowledges is an area that has fast captured mainstream interest.
“We work together with our customers who visit us at our application centres so that they can test out their recipes, with these processes often taking several weeks. In terms of the challenges ahead that we face, I would say that it is in Miriam van Wanroij, global process and project manager, says the market for high quality chocolate is expanding aiming to be one step ahead of our customers and knowing what the trends are happening in the market.” With the business continuing to make investment into its chocolate production facilities and cocoa processing sites around the world, it remains focused on a programme of expansion.
Furthermore, despite economic conditions remaining challenging, the company is also remaining on track with a strategy of delivering new product innovations that it hopes will make a real impact in an ever-shifting market.
• Cargill’s history dates back over 150 years, beginning with William Wallace Cargill, who became owner of a grain warehouse in Conover, Iowa, US.
• Today, the business employs 160,00 people in 70 countries across its food ingredients and agriculture interests, recording sales revenues of around $113 billion in 2019
• Cargill was established in Belgium via a grain importing office in Antwerp in 1953. It now has over 1,000 employees in eight locations: Antwerp (two locations), Izegem, Ghent, Herent, Vilvoorde, Mechelen and Mouscron.
• The company’s activities in Belgium include production of food ingredients and the processing, distribution and trading of a variety of grains and oilseeds. Both Cargill’s European headquarters for its food businesses and Cargill’s European R&D Centre, are located in Belgium.
• Cargill’s cocoa and chocolate business offers the food industry standard and customised cocoa and chocolate ingredients for use in bakery, confectionery and dairy applications all over the world.
• The company’s product range includes high quality Gerkens cocoa powders, chocolate, coatings, fillings, cocoa liquors and cocoa butters.
• Cargill’s processing plants in Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, the Netherlands, UK and the US are in full compliance with the highest food safety standards.