23 May 2022 – With a long history that started with making candles in the 19th century, Belgium’s Oleon is now one of Europe’s biggest oleochemicals producers and, for the last four years, has been looking to officially grow its presence in animal nutrition.
The company, which has been part of French agro-industrial giant, Avril Group since 2009, specialises in the conversion of natural oils of vegetable and animal origin into a wide range of products, such as fatty acids, glycerine, esters, dimers, technical oils, specialty chemicals and biodiesel.
Since 1950, the company has been operating Europe’s largest oleochemicals plant, which it constructed in Ertvelde, Ghent, and has since grown its presence internationally with production facilities in Emmerich, Germany, Compiégne, France and Port Klang, Malaysia, a strategically important facility for the company that places Oleon at the epicentre of palm oil production, a key raw material for the company.
It is now looking to further extend its “natural chemistry” and has identified animal nutrition as an area of importance. While Oleon has been actively engaging and selling to the sector since 2016, the decision to officially enter and grow its presence in the market was only taken in 2018. In this Industry Perspectives, Feedinfo chats to Sebastien Busschaert, the company’s Business Manager for Life Sciences, and Marjan Maes, its Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, to find out what led to the company taking this step and what exactly the strategy is to grow its industry footprint.
[Feedinfo] What does Oleon’s presence in animal nutrition currently look like and what led to the decision to officially enter the sector four years ago?
[Sebastien Busschaert] Our decision was driven by an increased demand we identified in the market for products based on our type of chemistry. This involved a first market assessment and extensive research that showed that our products could play an important role in the future challenges of the feed industry.
Today our product range for the animal nutrition market mainly consists of mono-and diglycerides based on short and medium chain fatty acids, providing antimicrobial properties. It also consists of a diverse range of emulsifiers, which can help improve fat digestion.
Thanks to our GMP+ certified manufacturing facilities in mainland Europe (Belgium) and in Asia (Malaysia), plus the support of our excellent international sales and supply chain teams, we are able to supply these products to animal nutrition customers all around the world.
[Feedinfo] So how is Oleon looking to expand its presence in animal nutrition? What is the strategy for this business unit over the next few years?
[Sebastien Busschaert] Oleon has the ambitious goal of doubling our sales in the animal nutrition market over the next five years.
Through our state-of-the-art food emulsifier production facilities, we believe we have all the tools needed to explore the full potential of our animal nutrition emulsifier range and grow it far beyond the limited selection available on the market today.
Secondly, we value working with our customers and see opportunities to partner with them through the sharing of our process technology and knowledge, thus allowing for the design of new molecules.
Thirdly, we are looking at synergies between our natural chemicals and other feed ingredients to broaden the scope of use of our products. To support this, we are continuously working on gathering further technical and functional data. This goes together with the development of solutions to work on current industry challenges.
Lastly, to meet our geographical goals and to better support our multinational customers, we are investing in building good regional networks across North America, Brazil and China, thus creating more visibility in those markets.
[Feedinfo] You mentioned collaborating with customers and sharing knowledge with them as part of your growth strategy. Why is it so important to Oleon to have their input?
[Sebastien Busschaert] As a customer-centric company we always stive to grow with them through understanding their current and future needs. This helps us identify how we can support each other and, more importantly, how can we learn from each other. Through good communication and information exchange we can focus on customers’ priorities and initiate joint development projects, as well as supply chain solutions.
[Feedinfo] Of course, sustainability is a major operating goal for many in the animal agriculture and nutrition sectors. As a proponent of sustainability itself, how is Oleon able to support these ambitions? In what areas does it feel it can help the industry improve its sustainability score?
[Marjan Maes] The world is changing, now more than ever, and companies have a role to play in addressing the climate emergency and the pressure being put on our planet's natural resources. That is why, led by the Avril Group’s mission statement of 'Serving the Earth', Oleon is ready to act on our responsibility to protect our planet.
In fact, sustainable entrepreneurship is part of Oleon's DNA. Informed by our long history of using renewable raw materials, like vegetable oils and animal fats, in the manufacturing of our products, our ambition is to continue offering safe and sustainable solutions in an innovative way that help to stimulate the global transition to a carbon neutral economy.
And this is a mission we would like to share with the animal nutrition sector. So, in terms of our feed additives and feed ingredients Oleon’s product portfolio can play a crucial role in the push towards a more sustainable food chain. Good fat digestibility will contribute to an improved feed conversion rate, leading to a more efficient use of the available resources. Plus, the use of short and medium chain mono-and diglycerides can help with subtherapeutic antibiotic reduction efforts. And this supports the 2030 target of the European ‘Farm-to-Fork’ sustainable food strategy, which aims to reduce antibiotic sales for use in farm animals by 50%.
[Feedinfo] Staying with sustainability, how has Oleon itself committed to driving the issue forward and reducing its own carbon footprint?
[Marjan Maes] Whilst Oleon’s energy consumption per tonne of product has decreased with 8% over the past three years thanks to continuous efforts and investments done in our manufacturing facilities, 11% of Oleon’s total emissions are linked to our own production.
Our 2030 CO2 reduction targets are very ambitious. We want to reduce our absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 30% (Scope 1 and 2) and to reduce value chain-linked emissions per tonne of products sold by 30% (Scope 3) compared to the year 2019.
To help us step up our game in order to reach our targets, we are now developing a decarbonization roadmap. This will help us to look at new ways to improve the efficiency of existing processes, to explore the possibility of using renewable and less carbon intensive energies, and to develop completely new production methods.
A great example of this is our collaborations with INCITE (Innovative Chemoenzymatic Integrated Processes) and LIPES (Life Integrated Process for the Enzymatic Splitting of Triclycerides) on two projects funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Both these projects are looking at the use of enzymes instead of chemical catalysis as a production method to operate at lower temperatures and pressure, thereby consuming less energy. In fact, Oleon is currently constructing a demo plant at one of our sites in Belgium that will produce some of our emulsifiers and surfactants with the help of enzymes, which could lead us to a more sustainable way of producing our products.
We have also recently launched an internal sustainability scoring tool that will guide us during the first phases of product development. We are also aiming to implement detailed carbon footprint and full life cycle analyses for 100% of our products by 2023.
The other 89% of Oleon’s total emissions are linked to our value chain, mainly raw materials and, to a lesser extent, transport and packaging. Here we have committed ourselves to applying the highest sustainability standards for tropical commodities, such as palm and soy, and are committed to ensuring that 100% of these supplies come from sustainable crops by 2030, with a first step of full traceability and certification by 2025. This can go a long way in drastically reducing the carbon footprint of our products.
We also support our suppliers in their sustainability journeys and actively engage them to improve their sustainability performance where possible.
[Feedinfo] Considering all the developments you are investigating to improve the sustainability and efficiency of your operations, does this necessarily mean longer production processes or increased costs for consumers?
[Marjan Maes] Moving towards alternative raw materials or new production processes does not always imply a higher cost. On the contrary, it challenges our current modus operandi and stimulates our creativity to reach our future sustainability goals.
In terms of longer production processes, our INCITE project mentioned earlier has shown that operating more sustainably with enzymes does result in a longer reaction time. However, thanks to the much lower production temperatures and post treatment requirements with this method, the energy savings are considerable and, in our opinion, make up for the loss in production time.
Published in association with Oleon