SunOpta is a Canadian company focusing on ethical operation in the natural and organic food markets. The SunOpta Grains and Food Group specialises in the sourcing, processing and distribution of food products from seed through to packaged ready-for-market products.

One of the company’s popular products is soy milk, which is being used by consumers more frequently and has also seen demand from the food service industry.

The soy milk market experienced 52% retail growth between 2002 and 2007, reaching $464m, according to figures from Mintel.

The expansion of its soy milk portfolio, especially into the foodservice market, requires the SunOpta to expand its production capabilities to meet customer demands and accommodate continued 20% annual growth in its core organic soymilk and alternate beverages portfolios, according to Allan Routh, president of the group.

New Modesto facility

In June 2008 SunOpta announced that it would establish a new facility in Modesto, California to aseptically process and pack organic soy milk, almond milk, organic soup and brewed tea products for the US market, packing products for Costco and Starbucks.

The new facility is situated in an existing building on the Tri Valley Growers’ Plant 1 site at 555 Mariposa Road, which used to be a fruit canning plant before it closed in 2006.

“The soy milk market experienced 52% growth between 2002 and 2007, reaching $464m.”

In August 2008 SunOpta invested $25m to outfit the new 180,000ft² plant and signed a long-term lease for the building. The site is owned by an investment group headed by Dr Stephen Endsley, who paid $29.5m for it in 2006.

SunOpta sources and processes the soy beans at facilities in Hope, Minnesota and Moorhead, Minnesota and then deliver them to various facilities – including Alexandria, Minnesota, Heuvelton, New York and Afton, Wyoming – to convert them into liquid concentrated soy base and soy fibre.

The concentrate is then transported to aseptic packaging facilities, such as the one in Modesto and an existing facility in Alexandria, Minnesota.

The new Modesto plant opened in May 2009, after commissioning began in March 2009, and has brought the production of soy milk and other beverages for SunOpta from 250 to 300 million quarts per year. The plant employs around 50 personnel but this is expected to increase over the next 18 months to more than 100.

New area

SunOpta considered moving to Chico, Stockton and Turlock before choosing Modesto. The Modesto site was chosen because of a favourable lease and because the cost of utilities in the area is more competitive. This is especially important as the facility requires 6 million gallons of water per month and also produces 3 million gallons of waste water per month.

“The new Modesto plant has brought the production of soy milk and other beverages for SunOpta from 250 to 300 million quarts per year.”

Another reason for siting the new facility in Modesto is to allow SunOpta to gain a foothold in the Southwestern US and improve its logistics as the plant is on the intersection of two major highways in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The new plant is expected to add around $15–20m to the company’s annual revenue.

Equipment

The aseptic cartoning systems at the plant were provided by Tetra Pak, including TBA 19s and A3/Flex aseptic. The system is flexible, allowing the packaging of a range of carton sizes from 200ml up to 2l at speeds of up to 6,000 to 8,000 cartons per minute. The US size at Modesto gives a carton of 1,890ml for food service clients.

The soy and related products are packaged in Tetra Pak TetraBrik and Tetra Pak Prisma packaging. The system also includes Tetra Therm Aseptic VTIS (aseptic buffering) and Tetra Alsafe (pasteurisation) processing equipment for the heat treatment of sensitive products such as soy milk and almond milk.