Fine chemicals companies are indispensable partners of the flavor and fragrance industry. Increasingly, they are forging stronger partnerships with customers through joint projects and special services, even as they fend off competition from Asia.
Natural materials for flavors are in high demand, says Anthony Weston, sales and marketing director at Oxford Chemicals Limited, a supplier of high-impact aroma chemicals. The trend ties in with increased consumer awareness, preference for traditional foodstuffs, and the growing popularity of organic food.
In the case of vanilla, extract from vanilla beans is very expensive. In the U.S., products containing synthetic vanillin cannot claim to be "all-natural." However, vanillin from fermentation is considered natural. Rhovanil Natural meets both European and U.S. rules for classification as a natural flavor, says Susan MacDonald, market and innovation director for Rhodia's flavor and fragrance ingredients.
Priced at about $700 per kg, Rhovanil Natural enables the formulation of natural vanilla flavoring at a lower price, Meric says. Natural extracts from vanilla beans cost around $1,800 per kg. Synthetic vanillin costs $15 per kg.
Most raw materials are available from catalogs. A full-scale vendor supplies both flavor and fragrance sides of the industry. Sigma-Aldrich Fine Chemicals, for example, offers more than 1,570 products, says Judy Pruss, marketing and operations manager for flavors and fragrances. A niche supplier has fewer items. For example, Oxford Chemicals has about 400 products, mostly for flavors, Weston says.
Also in high demand are nonallergenic compounds. "We see a trend of replacing compounds that are or may be allergenic," Meric says.
Rhodia has gone to great lengths to establish the safety of two of its products--benzyl salicylate and coumarin, MacDonald says. Its efforts are of great service to the industry. The two compounds are key raw materials. Neither one can be easily substituted.
Benzyl salicylate is an important perfume ingredient, sometimes making up to 60% of the volume of a formulation, MacDonald says. It is used to "round off" a fragrance, so that what one smells is a unified scent rather than individual odor components, she explains.
Rhodia is committed to ensuring that the industry is not forced to do without benzyl salicylate, Meric says. Its conviction of the compound's safety is based on extra-pure (99.9% pure) product. Studies with this grade of benzyl salicylate do not support the suspicion that the compound is allergenic, he says.
Coumarin smells like freshly mown hay. Any fragrance that smells herbaceous usually contains it. "Coumarin had been suspected to cause cancer, and we spent a lot of money proving it is not carcinogenic," MacDonald says. "We had cleared its name when all of a sudden it appeared on a list of suspected allergens. So we started again, to prove that it does not cause allergic reactions."
Service comes in other forms. Like their customers, fine chemicals companies also develop new compounds but at a much smaller scale. They can also offer process improvements, especially to customers losing patent protection. "When something comes off patent, if our knowledge in certain technologies can lead to a cheaper route, we go back to the originator and offer assistance," Meric says.
On a more immediate basis, Rhodia offers customer-assistance tools, such as SSOL, or Supply & Services Online, and VMI, or Vendor-Managed Inventory, MacDonald says. Sigma-Aldrich offers extensive information in its catalog and a variety of tools through its website, Pruss says.
Competition from Asia is a major challenge. Rhodia has dealt with this threat in various ways, Meric says. One is to finesse the low cost of Asian raw materials with Rhodia's commitment to sustainable development and the chemical industry's Responsible Care initiative.
"Chinese manufacturers are extremely good with batch reactions," Meric says. "Some of the chemicals we produce continuously in Europe, they manage to produce with quick and dirty processes that are acceptable in China. Take coumarin. It starts from cresol chemistry, and batch production generates effluents that would be unacceptable in Europe and extremely expensive to dispose of. In China, instead of disposing responsibly, manufacturers simply move the facility to some godforsaken place and carry on. Customers that share our business philosophy will insist on auditing not only the last step of production but also the upstream chemistry. They refuse to deal with suppliers that do not run operations properly."
Where Rhodia cannot be competitive, Meric says three options are available: phase out uncompetitive operations, move production to China or Brazil, or take over an Asian competitor. In the last case, the objective would be "to apply our Western chemistry and thinking" to the facility. Rhodia did this three years ago when it took over a Chinese vanillin plant. "With almost no additional cash outlays, by just applying our expertise, we doubled the capacity and worked on effluent treatment," he says. Now the plant produces vanillin that is sold under the trade name Snow Orchid.
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