German tofu company grows soybeans locally to ensure GMO-free

Germany-based Life Food GmbH achieved greater non-GMO assurance over its supply chain by contracting local German farmers to grow organic soybeans for its products.

Based in Freiburg in southwest Germany, Life Food GmbH manufactures 36 tofu products under the Taifun brand name. Products include plain, spiced, and smoked tofu, sausages, cutlets, and snacks. All products are organic, vegan, and non-GMO.

Life Food works with 50 wholesalers who sell the company’s products in health food stores in 12 European Union countries. Great Britain, Italy, France, and Switzerland are the most important markets outside of Germany, which accounts for 35 percent of sales. “The European market is a strong growing market for us,” says Stefan Hauck, manager of quality and development.

Life Food has steadily grown since its start in 1987 when company founders, Wolfgang Heck and Guenter Klein, began making tofu in a rented basement. Today, Life Food employs 100 people and generates sales of about 12 million euros per year.

Life Food has a strong focus on product quality, says Hauck. “We don’t produce anything we wouldn’t eat at home. We are focused on a good manufacturing process that guarantees a high quality and high standard.”
Demand for the Life Food’s products are growing by 20 percent per year, yet the company spends little money on marketing. Popularity of the company’s products has spread by word of mouth. “Customers tell others about products and how good they are,” says Hauck.

Life Food’s location in southwest Germany near the French-Swiss border is important, says Hauck. “We have the influence of the French food culture,” he says.

“What can we do to keep GMOs out?”
The location is also important because Life Food contracts farmers in the region to grow organic soybeans used in Taifun products.

The introduction of genetically modified soybeans in 1996 provided the impetus for growing soybeans locally. “We thought, ‘What can we do to keep GMOs out?’ so we decided to start our own soybean growing project,” says Martin Miersch, manager of purchasing and soybean production.

In 1997, Life Food approached organic farmers in the region to encourage them to grow soybeans for the company. The southwest region, known as Baden, is a warmer climate that is conducive to soybean production with early maturing varieties.

But the first year of production was not very successful due to inexperience with soybean production and low protein seed varieties. Life Food solved the problem by purchasing soybean seed varieties from Prograin, a soybean breeder in Quebec, Canada. “We found their varieties perform well, with high-yield and high-protein,” says Miersch.

Today, Life Food contracts 37 organic farmers in the Baden region to produce organic soybeans, which account for 50 percent of the annual required supply of 1500 metric tons. The other 50 percent of soybean supplies are purchased from Brazilian farmers, who also grow Life Food’s seed varieties.

Miersch says local soybean production has created a win-win situation for everyone. “The varieties perform well, and we can pay high prices to farmers, so they have a good alternative for income.”

Stringent non-GMO controls
Life Food has established stringent non-GMO controls to ensure virtually GMO-free production. It starts with seed. Each year, Life Food purchases about three tons of basic seeds, then multiplies the seed, and distributes them to farmers. Limiting the number of seeds imported makes GMO control easier. Before seed is multiplied, it is tested using the DNA-based PCR method. Life Food uses only PCR testing, which is conducted at Biochem, a German laboratory. Miersch believes other methods are not as accurate in detecting GM material. Taifun personnel also inspect fields during the growing season. Harvested soybeans are PCR tested before transportation to Life Food’s cleaning facility. PCR tests are also conducted on finished products. In addition, each year Life Food analyzes a certain number of 80 other raw materials, including oils, flour, spices, herbs, and vegetables, to assess GM risk. For example, sweet corn is placed in a high-risk group and tested.

Detection of trace GMOs is a disaster
Life Food has zero tolerance for any GM material, and there are good reasons for this, says Miersch. “Most North Americans don’t understand why we insist on 100 percent non-GMO,” he says. “There is no acceptance in our society for any GMOs in food.”

According to Miersch, several German consumer magazines, including Test, the German equivalent of the United State’s Consumer Reports, conduct regular GMO tests on consumer products. Test results are then published in major newspapers and reported on television news. “If we had one 0.1 percent GMO in our tofu, just traces, it would be on the evening news and be a disaster for marketing and sales,” says Miersch.

As a result, Miersch says, “We can’t see any advantage to GM food.”

Copyright 2006. The Organic & Non-GMO Report
(May 2006)