Soja Austria leads Europe in full-fat non-GM soy flour products

It's hard to imagine a company offering greater non-GMO assurance than Soja Austria. The Vienna-based company produces non-GM soy ingredients in a country that bans genetically modified products, while requiring a hard IP system with extensive GMO testing that is also certified non-GMO. "I don't see what I can do more," says Tilman Graf, Soja Austria's managing director.

When Graf launched his company in 1996, he projected it would last for about three years before GMO concerns faded. That was seven years ago, and today, Soja (pronounced "soya") Austria is Europe's leading supplier of full-fat soy ingredients, commanding more than 50 percent of the market. Needless to say, Graf adjusted his original projection. "For the next five years, the demand will grow even more," he predicts.

Graf knows something about the soy industry, having worked 30 years for industry leaders such as Archer Daniels Midland and Degussa. He surprised his former colleagues by starting a company to produce non-GMO. "They thought non-GMO wouldn't be interesting, but I thought it would," he says.

Leader in full-fat soy production

Soja Austria produces a full range of full-fat soy protein products, including toasted, granulated, enzyme-active, flaked, and bran, as well as snack soy nuts and isoflavones. Annual production is about 25,000 tons. In addition, the company produces full-fat protein products made from sweet lupins, a unique crop that is grown as an alternative to soy in Europe.

European manufacturers use these products to make confections, including chocolate, and baked goods, such as breads, which are a staple in many European countries, particularly Germany. "There are 213 different types of bread in Germany," says Graf.

Demand for Soja Austria's products is high according to Graf. "We're seeing an increase of between 15 and 25 percent each year," he says.

Soja Austria is one of a few companies in Europe and worldwide that produces full-fat soy ingredients. These are made using a cold-pressed milling process unlike the chemical hexane extraction process used by large processors.

In this niche, Soja Austria leads the European market ahead of large competitors such as Degussa and Cargill. According to Graf, the latter companies use U.S. soybeans, which may contain GM varieties, and cannot guarantee the tight non-GMO thresholds that his company can. Non-GMO assurance is the main reason why Soja Austria is the market leader, according to Graf. "Cost is not a factor because our products cost the same as our competitors," he says. "Our customers buy because they want the safety of non-GMO."

GMO-free zone

If one had to choose an ideal country to produce non-GM soybeans, Austria would be the place. Austria's Food Codex prohibits the growing of any GM products, thus making the country a GMO-free zone, which gives Soja Austria a huge marketing advantage. "I can isolate my crops," says Graf. "This is something no one in the U.S. can imagine." Austria is one of a few European countries where climate and soil favor soybean production. In 2002, Austria's farmers grew 13,995 hectares of non-GMO soy (34,581 acres), which makes it the country's third leading oilseed crop behind winter rapeseed and sunflower.

Soja Austria contracts 950 farmers to produce soy varieties for its products, a situation Graf describes as a "win-win" for both parties. "We guarantee farmers a premium when they are seeding, not at harvest," he says. In return, Soja Austria receives a reliable supply of non-GM beans and control over production from seed to the final product.

Hard IP safeguarded by the government

Many companies would be happy to rely on Austria's ban alone as a way to provide non-GMO assurance. Not Soja Austria. The company also implements strict identity preservation at every stage of production along with extensive GMO testing. "It's a 'hard IP' safeguarded by the government," says Graf. "This is a big selling point."

Soja Austria selects seed varieties and gives them to farmers. The company conducts meetings with farmers before and during the growing season to educate them about the quality and value of the non-GMO beans.

Soja Austria does an extraordinary amount of GMO testing, conducting 18 DNA-based PCR analysis throughout production. Samples are taken and tested on seed, on plants in the field, at harvest, and upon arrival at silos. Within silos, samples are taken at three different levels and tested. Further testing is conducted before soy is processed and on finished products. Every stage is documented to ensure traceability back to the seed. The entire process is certified according to the Cert ID non-GMO standard, which require a GMO tolerance of less than 0.1 percent.

Such a rigorous non-GMO assurance system is expensive, but is worth it, according to Graf. "This kills competition," he says. "No one else producing full-fat soy has certified non-GMO from farm to fork that is also backed by the government." Soja Austria produces strictly non-GM soy, but not organic, though Graf sees organic's potential. "The organic market is too small for me, but it will grow," he says.

Soja Austria also produces sweet lupins products, which emerged within the last few years as a non-GM alternative to soy. "There was a growing feeling among manufacturers that they didn't want soy anymore because of the GMO issue," says Graf. Soja Austria and several other European companies responded by producing lupins, which is high in beta carotene and less expensive than soy. Now, Graf says companies are going back to soy.

Consumers don't want GMOs

As with other non-GMO producers, Soja Austria has turned the negative sentiment about GMOs into a marketing opportunity. Graf says he is simply responding to what European consumers want. "It's vital for me to know what consumers want," he says. "Everywhere in Europe consumers don't want it (GMOs), full stop."
(May 2003)