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This article was published 8/8/2019 (197 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Construction of a $400-million pea processing plant just outside Portage la Prairie — to be the largest in North America — is "full steam ahead" a year away from opening, the company’s new top Canadian executive said.
Dominique Baumann, head of Canadian operations for French giant Roquette, transferred to Winnipeg a few weeks ago from Singapore, where he was chief executive of Roquette’s Asian operations. He said finding ways to satisfy burgeoning demand for plant-based meat substitutes while being environmentally sustainable has been a top priority for the Manitoba plant’s design.
"It is all about sustainability, less water usage, less greenhouse gases... all these things favour plant-based protein," he said. "More than 10 years ago, we started to invest in developing a process to make plant-based protein (in) a natural way. For instance, soy protein has been on the market for a long time, especially in Asia. But they use solvents to extract that protein. It is not natural."
'The pea plant we are building in Portage is one of the most critical milestones in our ambition to become the global leader of plant protein'— Dominque Baumann, head of Canadian operations for Roquette
The company operates in 100 countries, with manufacturing operations all over Europe as well as in China, India, South Korea and the U.S., and Baumann said the regulatory peculiarities in Canada are not onerous.
Roquette makes countless types of food and pharmaceutical ingredients, mostly from natural commodities, and is very tuned in to the consumer trends that its customers strive to meet.
"The consumer is starting to pay a lot of attention to this and this is why we created this natural extraction process," he said. "We believe this trend will continue and we are already working on some other plant-based protein from other beans and other plants."
The company has been shipping pea protein from its plant in France for many years — it began supplying Beyond Meat long before it became the latest overnight success — and there is competition from other producers (including plans by a Manitoba company to build a pea/canola protein plant in the province). But the Portage la Prairie plant will be the largest in North America.
Baumann comes on board more than a year ahead of the planned opening of the plant in the fourth quarter of 2020.
The company already has a staff of 40 engineers, supply-chain managers and quality-control technicians. Roquette has leased the former air force training facility at Southport, a move Baumann said is lucky for the company.
"It is a great facility," he said. "The location is good. We can have the canteen and the gym and there is housing. It’s very helpful for us."
Pea growers in the region have been contacted but Roquette has not started contracting yet. Baumann said because a pea futures market doesn’t yet exist, there is no way to hedge the price.
"You cannot cover yourself against price variations like you can on large commodities like corn or wheat," Baumann said. "With peas, it is different. We have to adjust (our) purchasing strategy and our pricing strategy (as the price fluctuates)."
And those price variations will have an effect on operations, he said. In the past couple of years, as demand for pea protein started to climb — pea protein is a key ingredient in a lot of the new plant-based consumer meat-alternative products — the price of the commodity has almost doubled.
Managing that additional twist, along with the strategic importance of the Portage plant for Roquette and the challenge of developing an expensive greenfield production with lots of moving parts, it’s no surprise that the company tapped one of its senior officials to run things here.
"The pea plant we are building in Portage is one of the most critical milestones in our ambition to become the global leader of plant protein," Baumann said.
"And I am very pleased to have been given the chance to lead this exciting project."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.