China, once a sleeping tiger, seemed to awaken in the last few years to be perceived a juggernaut in the multibillion-dollar world of food processing. Then the "most favored nation" began to have its dirty laundry discovered in wave after wave of scandal. The execution of its director of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, (see "Heads Should Roll") hasn't stopped the run of outrages, revealed one after another. Two more Chinese officials in charge of food and drug safety have also received the death penalty for crimes such as Zheng's and others have received life sentences.
The cast of the horror ingredient contaminations Zheng and his ilk collected bribes to pass includes (according to various sources): the widely reported melanine in pet food and seafood; contaminated rice; pesticide-infested vegetables; beer laced with formaldehyde; prunes tinted with chemical dyes not approved for human consumption; frozen shrimp preserved with the carcinogen nitrofuran; mushrooms that had been sprayed with illegal and dangerous pesticides; contaminated vitamin C; and toothpaste and cough medicine tainted with the deadly solvent diethylene glycol.
According to a recent Reuters article, the $80 billion worth of imported foods reported by the U.S. International Trade Commission involve ingredients from more than 100 countries, including developing countries in Asia and Africa. It's no secret many of these locales have less than adequate control over processing, packaging and shipping conditions.
Luckily, China isn't the only Asian food and food-ingredient giant. Tiny Israel (the entire country could fit inside Lake Michigan) is geographically on the far western edge of Asia, but it is light years away in modernity. This country of fewer than 7 million is a source of the latest advancements in nutraceuticals and food-ingredient technology.
Israel has been a global tech leader for decades. Most aviation, communications and medical technology advances of the past decade have come out of this "Silicon Valley of the Middle East." And when it comes to agricultural leaps, well, Israelis are well known for making the desert bloom and turning mosquito-ridden swamps into lush forests and fertile farmland.
Working from both sides of agronomy, so to speak, Israelis developed fruits and vegetables that sip water and deliver increased nutrition, while coaxing previously barren land to accept and grow such produce. The archetype could probably be the Lycored tomato, by Lycored Industries, Be'er Sheva. It's a tomato that contains four times the amount of the powerful carotenoid antioxidant, lycopene, as is found in regular tomatoes and is grown in the blistering hot and dry Negev desert.
As the "little country that could," Israel scores high marks for security. Plants are protected by trained (usually armed) guards. Top-notch protection of proprietary information is the paradigm and nearly all personnel have been trained by the most advanced military disciplines in the world. This is because Israel requires mandatory military service for both men and women and has, per capita, the largest standing defensive army in the world. If only our own plants were protected as well!
Where China just announced the shutdown of hundreds of food processing plants -- a drop in the bucket of the thousands it has cranking out a quarter of a trillion dollars in product each year -- Israel is building or expanding its food- and ingredient-processing industry in leaps and bounds. So much so the country now is a leader in the production and supply of a diverse menu of ingredients such as fructose, glucose, starch, citric acid, minerals, antioxidants, herbal extracts, soy proteins, meat analogues and ready-to-eat vegetarian meals.
For instance, the Galam Group Ltd. (www.galam.co.il), Kibbutz Ma'anit, provides most of the fructose, glucose, and starch for Europe. Galam has grown into a global presence, with facilities in Europe, Asia and its offshoot, Enzymotec lipids (www.enzymotec.com), about to open a new facility in New Jersey.
The aforementioned Lycored (www.lycored.com) is the world leader in natural lycopene, as well as other carotenoid antioxidants. Gadot Biochemical Industries Ltd. (www.gadotbio.com), Haifa, is a major supplier of citric acid, citrate salts, phosphate salts and mineral fortifiers (such as calcium citrate, calcium phosphate, magnesium citrate and zinc citrate). It does big fructose business, too.
Two Israeli companies -- one domestic, one located in Slovenia -- have a strong lock on the rosemary antioxidant market. Rad Natural Technologies (www.rad-int.com), in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva, is best known for its Origanox line of rosemary, sage and melissa extracts. These provide a dual antioxidant benefit by protecting processed foods from spoilage and increasing shelf life, while also imparting the health benefits of reduced cancers and heart disease risk. The extracts are also powerful antimicrobials.
Although he sited Vitiva SI (www.vitiva.si) in Markovci in Slovenia, far away from his homeland, Israeli Ohad Cohen rapidly grew it into the largest natural rosemary extract producer in Europe. The company's different product lines, such as INOLENS, SyneROX and AquaROX, each tailored to specific uses, ranging from stabilization of carotenoids, tomato-based products and paprika oleoresins to protecting polyunsaturated fatty acids from oxidative degradation.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of my tour of Israel's food and ingredient industry was how clean and efficient the plants were. State-of-the-art equipment, spotless conditions and highly trained staff were the rule in every plant, lab and production center visited. All the industries visited strictly comply with ISO, HACCP and GMP standards as applicable.
Typically, Israeli process and product adhere to the standards determined by multiple countries. From a logistics point of view, it has to be that way -- Israel's small size and central location (it's been the crossroads of trade for 6,000 years) impels it to please many masters in its export endeavors. Sitting as it does at the nexus of three continents, Israel has multiple, modern port facilities along its coast as well as at its southern tip on the Red Sea. (Unfortunately, parting the Red Sea to create a land bridge to Africa was just a one-time deal.)
These factors of high-standard processing were especially noticeable in smaller companies, such as Haifa-based Lipogen Ltd. (www.lipogen.co.il), a company breaking new ground in phosphatidylserine for food and beverage applications out of a small, yet pristine plant utilizing technology the group of former submarine commanders who owns it designed themselves.
Herbamed Ltd. (www.herbamed.co.il), in Rehovot, is playing on Israel's leading position in pharmaceutical technology to translate its already strong nutraceutical supplement business into the food and beverage ingredient milieu. The company makes a nanoencapsulated form of coenzyme-Q10 called Ultrasome that it calls the first powdered formulation of the compound to be highly bioavailable with unprecedented dissolution and dispersion rates.
Anlit Advanced Nutritional Supplements (www.anlit.biz), Emeq Hefer, is also following a similar in extending from supplements to food ingredients with such offerings as omega-3 chocolates and fruit jelly bars enhanced with vitamins and omega-3.
Utilizing agricultural tech at a similarly innovative level is AlgaTechnologies (www.algatech.com), near the resort town of Eilat in the far southern tip of the country. The company is now the largest supplier of the antioxidant carotenoid, astaxanthin. The ingredient, which has shown significant promise for a wide variety of health issues, including cancer, eyesight, cardiovascular health and skin health, is derived from algae grown in highly controlled "fields" of sealed vertical and horizontal glass tubes in the desert. The algae are stimulated by heat, light and solar radiation to produce the astaxanthin.
China became a giant through its main resource: cheap labor. Israel had the opposite problem. Although the country has the highest number of PhDs per capita of any nation, it had to learn to do more with less - less labor, less natural resources, less room.
East Asia is often synonymous with soybeans and tea, but processors and purveyors are turning increasingly to Solbar Industries Ltd. (www.solbar.com), Ashdod, one of the world's leading suppliers of soy proteins, and Wissotzky Tea Israel Ltd. (www.wtea.com), Tel Aviv, the rapidly expanding tea house processing tea for more than 7,000 outlets worldwide.
The 158-year-old Wissotzky's new, surgically clean plant in Ma'alot in the north-central part of the country is typical of the Israeli focus on clean lines, well-planned efficiency and streamlined production. Also indicative of an industry that rises above overblown headlines is the fact that at Wissotzky Arab and Israeli workers work side by side with nary a hint of friction.
Solbar has had its share of ups and downs as it weathered the highly incestuous soy product business. But the company has come out on top -- or near the top -- to land a spot among the top manufacturers of soy protein isolates and soy protein concentrates.
Ironically, Solbar has also expanded its global reach to China. The company's new facility in Ningbo, in the Free Trade Zone near Shanghai, is not, however, a typical Chinese facility, and products and practices there adhere to all the same rigorous controls in place in Israeli factories.
Solbar isn't the only Israeli company to help improve China's failing reputation. Gadot Biochemical, which recently acquired the American nutraceutical and premix company Pharmline Holding Inc., Florida, N.Y., is completing a new $30 million, 60,000-ton capacity citric acid and citrate salts production plant in Jiangsu, China. As with Solbar, Gadot is making sure the plant's location will not diminish the strict adherence to global standards of safety and excellence, while being "green" when it comes to energy conservation and pollution control.
Israel's processed food industry is enjoying equally exciting boom times. Mergers and Acquisitions have made companies such as Osem Trading Group Ltd. and Strauss Ltd. (formerly Strauss-Elite Group) multinational contenders. After Osem decided in 1994 to set up an American subsidiary (Osem USA) to help handle growth, its sales increased more than four times, and the company's annual growth rate is continuing at high percentage rates every year.
When the Elite coffee and confectionery company merged with the Strauss Group it only helped move the conglomerate toward the billion-dollar annual sales mark and double-digit growth. The 70-year-old, Ramat Gan-based company employs more than 10,000 people and operates in 16 countries on five continents.
One medium-sized processor --1,500 employees in several plants -- making nearly as impressive gains is Soglowek Ltd. (www.soglowek.co.il/Text.asp?id=54), Nahariya. Celebrating its 70th year, the family-owned baked goods, poultry, meat and deli meat company not only continues as one of the largest turkey product manufacturers outside of the U.S., it has become a world leader in the meatless/meat analogue foods marketed under its Zoglos brand (www.zoglos.com).
The company's products are non-GMO and have received USDA approval and ISO certification for implementing advanced production methods. The company complies with HACCP procedures and all of the company's meat products are approved by the Veterinary Service of the Agriculture Ministry and Health Ministry.
As China encounters more and more troubles -- the FDA is demanding lab tests for all incoming Chinese seafood, consumers are now shunning Chinese products and slapped on controls are disrupting Chinese food and ingredient imports with delays and price hikes to cover testing and red tape -- the need to source ingredients and foods from other nations is unavoidable. But the countries stepping into the breach have to be able to deliver unassailable product.
Aside from a reputation for high-tech excellence, top-flight production paradigms and its centralized location Israel is blessed with temperate weather pretty much all year round that helps ensure easy transport of product. The Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute (www.export.gov.il), Tel Aviv, provides information on all aspects of doing business with and within the country, including tax and other incentives available to qualifying businesses.
A Side Note
Normally, you won't see dining reviews in this space. However, anyone interested in creative food technology who finds themselves in Israel should check out "2C" (www.2-c.co.il). The high-end Tel Aviv restaurant is upscale not only figuratively but literally, perched at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the Middle East. But it's also a kosher, nondairy establishment - something you'd never guess from the incredible culinary accomplishments. The "cream" sauces and ersatz dairy desserts are impeccable in texture, taste, color and mouthfeel.