CANADA – SunOpta, a Minnesota company on a mission to create organic, healthy, and sustainable milk and food products, is preparing to open the first phase of a new US$100 million, 285,000-square-foot facility.
Since bacteria is a milk processing plant’s mortal enemy, the company is intricately building the new facility to have a sterile process that doesn’t strip the company’s plant-based milk of the flavor its customers expect.
In August 2021, the company announced plans for the “mega-facility” that broke ground a month later.
Midlothian and Ellis County are giving SunOpta an eight-year tax abatement valued at about US$7.3 million.
The company will also be eligible for a grant of up to US$200,000 for creating and retaining jobs, according to Midlothian City Council documents.
The Midlothian plant will be the company’s largest to date out of the 12 plants in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, three of which make products similar to Midlothian.
By the end of the year, the Midlothian plant will be churning out alternative milk products through a bacteria-free manufacturing process that sterilizes each step separately.
Michael Buick, the senior vice president, and general manager of SunOpta said: “Aseptic manufacturing is very complex. You’re looking at a sterile product going into a sterile package in a sterile environment.”
The plant will make SunOpta milk, teas, and broths that will typically be in three package sizes – 32-ounce slim and edge packages used in food service, shelf-stable retail and e-commerce packages for plant-based milk products, and 330-milliliter packages used primarily in high-protein nutrition shakes.
To strengthen its goal to have zero waste, the company’s senior plant manager for the Midlothian facility, Anil Neti, said sustainability is also a key part of the new building.
He added that the company has blueprinted the initiative in the design of the facility that will not only address the environment but also the local community, employees, and stakeholders.
The expansion of SunOpta dairy company is timely as plant-based milk is beating out consumption of fluid milk, or cow’s milk, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research.
Plant-based milk alternatives also are beginning to cut into traditional cow’s milk sales, considering that younger American generations are drinking less fluid milk than the previous generation, the USDA’s Economic Research Service reports.
USDA explains that people born in the 1980s and 1990s consume even less fluid milk in their adulthood than those born in the 1970s, pointing to different beverage selections people had as children.
SunOpta has plans to expand the Midlothian plant in a second phase, which includes an extra 150,000 square feet of production space.
The second phase, which has not been slated a period, could mean new products and additional expansion of oat extraction, Buick said. Since the company is a contract manufacturer, that could take the form of a joint project with partners.
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