Indian spice makers under heat in Asia for alleged contamination

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May 3, 2024

SAYAN CHAKRABORTY, Nikkei staff writer
Bengaluru, 2 May 2024

India’s packaged spice manufacturers MDH and Everest are under regulatory scrutiny in several countries after their products were allegedly found to contain carcinogenic elements, barely a year after cough syrups made in the South Asian nation were linked to the deaths of over 140 children in Africa.

Countries like Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. are weighing investigations into the packaged spices made by the companies after Hong Kong authorities raised a red flag over their quality. This isn’t the first time that the two — among the largest such companies in India — have faced these kinds of issues, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordering a recall of Everest spice mixes in 2023 and some MDH products in 2019, both due to salmonella contamination.

The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) in Hong Kong said in a statement on April 5 that it found ethylene oxide (ETO), a pesticide that can cause cancer if consumed in large amounts, in three types of packaged spices manufactured by MDH and one made by Everest. The products were taken off the shelves and recalled, the CFS said.

Taking its cue from the Hong Kong authorities, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) a couple of weeks later recalled the Everest Fish Curry Masala product, saying in a statement that consumers who had purchased it were “advised not to consume it.”

The SFA also said, “As the implicated products [in Hong Kong] were imported into Singapore, the SFA has directed the importer to recall the products.” The agency clarified that “although there is no immediate risk to consumption of food contaminated with low levels of ethylene oxide, long-term exposure may lead to health issues.”

India’s Spice Board, a government agency that oversees spice exports, said that the limit for ETO varies between countries, from 0.02 milligram per kilogram of spices in places like the U.K. and Norway to 7 milligram per kilogram in Canada and the U.S.

Pesticides are widely used in agriculture in India, often leaving traces in food products. According to Indian government estimates, the cultivated area where chemical pesticide is used grew 33.4% from the fiscal year ending March 2019 to fiscal 2023, reaching 108,216 hectares. That was about seven times the area cultivated with biopesticides in 2023.

“We tend to look critically at the end product, but even more rigor is needed at the level of the ingredients,” said Devangshu Dutta, CEO at consultancy firm Third Eyesight, referring to the use of pesticides in cultivation. “Otherwise, we will end up kind of catching the product at the last point of control, which is not enough.”

Hong Kong and Singapore did not disclose the amount of ETO content in the recalled products. MDH and Everest had not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Authorities elsewhere have also taken note of the allegations. “Food Standards Australia New Zealand is working with our international counterparts to understand the issue with federal, state and territory food enforcement agencies to determine if further action is required in Australia, e.g., a food recall,” the agency told Nikkei Asia in an email statement on Wednesday.

The regulatory scrutiny in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore, raises questions over an export market worth about $700 million, research firm Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI) said in a report on Wednesday.

“Swift investigations and the publication of findings are essential to re-establish global trust in Indian spices,” GTRI said, adding that the “lack of clear communication [from government agencies] is disappointing.”

Indian food has been under scrutiny in Europe as well. The European Commission Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed estimates that since the beginning of 2023, Indian food products were deemed to pose “serious” risks in 166 instances. These included nine cases of ethylene oxide found in food supplements and spices in countries including Sweden, Greece and Italy.

Chinese food imports were found to pose serious risks on 115 occasions and those from the U.S. on 152 occasions.

The recalls come at a time when New Delhi is rolling out incentives to support local manufacturers and exporters in transforming India into a $5 trillion economy. India is the world’s largest exporter of spices with shipments worth $3.9 billion in 2023, followed by Vietnam and Mexico, according to data provider Tendata. Those figures give India a market share of 37.2%, with Vietnam at 28.1% and Mexico at 9.6%.

The issue with food products follows an outcry over the quality of medicines manufactured in India. Since 2022, the World Health Organization has linked the deaths of at least 141 children in Gambia, Uzbekistan and Cameroon to cough syrups made by India’s Maiden Pharmaceuticals, Marion Biotech and Riemann Labs that it alleged contained toxins.

But while the pharma companies are small local players, MDH and Everest made revenues of $260 million and $360 million respectively, in the fiscal year ended March 2023.

Poor food quality in India stems from a general lack of awareness about food safety and insufficient resources to track ingredients, among other reasons, said U.S.-based food and beverage consultancy AIB International in a report in October.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India found 16,582 samples unsafe in the fiscal year 2022, the latest such data available. That was a threefold jump from the previous year.

“Most of the food and beverage manufacturers in India are focused on reducing costs to make their product affordable to the public,” the report said. “As a result, many cannot prioritize food safety as a pillar of their business because it could prevent them from meeting their profit margins.”

“Food manufacturing and processing facilities can lack the resources to maintain proper hygiene,” it noted, adding that food-borne illnesses in India is estimated to top 100 million every year.

(Published on Nikkei)

Package Deal

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February 21, 2024

Sharleen D’Souza, Business Standard

Mumbai, 20 February 2024

Over the past year, Amul has undergone a transformative journey, evolving from a dairy-centric entity to a comprehensive foods company.

Since 2022, PepsiCo India, too, has embarked on extensive launches in the food category.

Not to be left behind, ITC, which has been introducing an average of 100 fastmoving consumer goods (FMCG) products across categories every year, has also launched a number of packaged food items.

The shelves in stores are packed. The options on e-commerce platforms are dizzyingly aplenty. The consumer is spoilt for choice. Which flavour of oats to go for? What packet of chips to pick? Should one reach out for those mouthwatering frozen snacks or think healthy and opt for atta (wheat flour) cookies?

Companies are pulling out all possible goodies in the form of packed food.

It is a strategic shift initiated during the pandemic and which has proven to be a lasting trend. During the pandemic, when other businesses were curtailing expenses, food companies started launching new products as consumers turned to packaged food.

Amul identified a growing preference for purity during the pandemic, and realised that this preference was here to stay. The company aggressively expanded its product range, venturing beyond dairy into items such as organic dal, atta, and basmati rice.

“We noticed that consumers were moving from unbranded to branded products, and were increasingly seeking out those that would boost their immunity,” says Jayen Mehta, managing director, Gujarat
Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation. Even later, as the world moved out of the pandemic, the preference for packaged foods continued.

Convenience foods, which had gained prominence during the pandemic, sustained their popularity. The widespread adoption of modern retail formats, including brick-and-mortar, e-commerce and quick commerce, proved to be further growth enablers for packaged foods. These formats facilitate the display of entire product ranges to a larger consumer base, says brand expert Devangshu Dutta, founder at Third Eyesight, and that helps.

Growing platter

Today, while Amul’s flagship product, packaged milk, is recording double-digit growth, Mehta says the company is also focusing on premiumisation by introducing artisanal cheese and products such as
Amul High Protein Buttermilk, high protein lassi and shakes, and whey protein.

ITC’s diverse launches, meanwhile, include lump-free Aashirvaad Besan, frozen breads, Dark Fantasy centre-fill cookies, and a variety of Master Chef frozen snacks such as paneer pakoda and onion rings, B
Natural fruit juices, Aashirvaad Svasti ghee, and so on.

Last year, as the focus turned to millets, and 2023 was declared International Year of Millets, the Kolkata-headquartered conglomerate saw a healthy business opportunity. It launched ITC Mission Millet with
an array of millet-based products: Sunfeast millet cookies, Aashirvaad millet mixes, YiPPee! millet-based noodles, Candyman Fantastik chocsticks with millets, and more.

“The company will continue with its focus on consumer-centric innovation and product launches across its portfolio,” says Hemant Malik, executive director, ITC. A finger on the consumer’s pulse, product research and development through ITC’s Life Sciences and Technology Centre, and an extensive omnichannel distribution infrastructure are helping the game.

PepsiCo India, too, is in the race to capture a growing share of the packaged food market. How serious the company is about this can be gauged from the fact that since 2022, its launches in the packaged food category have been the highest since it entered the food space in 1995.

It is not even two months into 2024 and PepsiCo has already launched three flavours in oats: masala magic, herby cheese, and mixed berries.

Last year, it had four launches and introduced seven new flavours in Doritos and Kurkure. And in 2022, it launched five new products and eight new flavours in Doritos, Quaker Oats and Lay’s.

In Lay’s, it went premium and launched Lay’s Gourmet.

Sravani Babu, associate director and category lead at Quaker Oats, says while the category is nascent compared to other FMCG segments, it is growing in double digits. So, the three new flavours were a
considered call.

While “basic oats continue to be the leading segment in the category,” she says, with these new flavours, the company is looking at oats as not just something one eats for breakfast. With PepsiCo keen on broadening the oats portfolio, the bowl is expected to see even more variety in the time to come.

Food in a jiffy

Quick commerce, which promises deliveries within 10 minutes, has also accelerated in-home consumption trends, said Saumya Rathor, category lead of potato chips at PepsiCo India, in an interview.

Consumer habits, she said, take decades to evolve, but the pandemic hastened that shift. So, the convenience-driven traction for packaged foods has persisted. E-commerce and quick commerce have only expanded packaged snack penetration across the country.

In response to the growing demand, PepsiCo India has announced its first food manufacturing plant in Nalbari, Assam, with an investment of Rs. 778 crore ($95 million). Scheduled to be operational in 2025,
this expansive facility spans 44.2 acres and underscores the company’s desire to make the most of the rising consumption trends in the foods sector.

Other food companies, including ITC and Amul, have also embraced an assertive stance, launching products strategically.

The trajectory indicates a promising future for India’s packaged food sector. The shelves are set to overflow.

Size of the packaged foods market: In 2022, India’s packaged food market size was $2.7 billion and it is projected to reach $3.4 billion by 2027

(According to Statista)

(Published in Business Standard)

Venture Capital in Retail – What Attracts Investors to Retail Business (VIDEO)

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February 15, 2024

An insightful must-watch discussion, moderated by Devangshu Dutta (Founder, Third Eyesight), with venture capital fund managers, investors and entrepreneurs in retail on what factors attract investors to retail businesses.

The panelists included Vikram Gupta (Founder & Managing Partner, IvyCap Ventures), Amar Nagaram, (Co-Founder, Virgio), and Vikram Gawande (Vice President, Growth, Blume Ventures).

Q-comm goes beyond grocery; all set to challenge e-comm dominance?

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January 8, 2024

Yash Bhatia, Afaqs

8 January 2024

In the 10th episode of Zerodha co-founder Nikhil Kamath’s YouTube podcast series, WTF, Aadit Palicha, co-founder, Zepto, says that consumer goods are the fastest-growing category for its quick commerce business. Initially, quick commerce brands just focussed on serving impulse grocery needs, but now they have changed their way to serve regular planned purchases too.

Major players like Zepto, Blinkit, Swiggy Instamart, and BBNow are expanding their offerings in gifting, makeup, ready-to-eat, baby care, pet care, meat, poultry and more to cater to a wider range of consumer needs and preferences.

Through our interviews with brands like Bombay Shaving Company, Bevzilla and Plum, it is evident that Q-comm business contributes approximately 10-25% of online revenue for different brands.

Also, according to a report by Redseer, the Q-comm market is expected to reach almost $5.5 billion by 2025. The report highlights, that these platforms can up their game by going beyond just grocery and extend their offerings to other consumables, electronics, newspapers and more.

It shows that quick commerce players would focus on other categories to reach this milestone. But, are brands ready for it? If yes, how is their strategy different for this model?

Aditi Handa, co-founder of The Baker’s Dozen, an artisanal bakery, states, “In our category, once the customers figure out a product in the physical store, then they tend to buy again on the quick commerce platforms rather than visiting a store. It works well in our category, as there is no need to touch and feel the product.”

Baker’s Dozen makes 60-65% of its online sales on Q-comm platforms.

Devangshu Dutta, founder of Third Eyesight says that quick commerce has spread across various product categories and he believes, “It is driven more by buzz than customer needs. Unless we meet a core demand with a large consumer market, there’s no sustained road to profit.”

Deepti Karthik, fractional CMO, SuperBottoms, says, “In the diaper category, there are a lot of unplanned purchases. We target customers who’re buying other products, and eventually get trails from them.”

She points out that a lot of gifting happens in the quick commerce segment. “Gift packs can be a great solution our brand can leverage.”

She predicts that for the baby-care brand, quick commerce will contribute 3-5% of overall revenue, led by gifting as a category.

Apart from the reduced delivery time, is there a reason that customers are opting to shop on quick commerce platforms?

Handa answers that two factors work in favour of Q-comm platforms: discounts and convenience. “As these players are expanding their portfolio, customers will find more reasons to go on these apps.”

Is the quick commerce business driven by celebrations?

India is renowned for its diverse festivities. Quick commerce platforms capitalise on this by selling event-related or topical assortments. For instance, they offer flutes for Krishna Jayanti, Ganesha idols for Ganesh Chaturthi, Christmas decorations for the holiday, decorative items for Diwali, and gold and silver coins for Dhanteras.

These platforms are also curating special web and app pages for such occasions, even for regional festivals like Chauth Puja. In 2023, Blinkit curated a specific page dedicated to the wedding season.

Karthik states, “The major business of this sector is driven by consumables and FMCG products. On special occasions, e-commerce brands used to curate specific products, which Q-commerce is now doing. The market share of the other modes is now being taken by the quick commerce players on festivals. That’s why every e-commerce is looking to launch its version of Q-commerce, like Amazon Fresh by Amazon, and BBnow by Big Basket.”

Handa believes differently and states that quick commerce is not taking up the market share of any other modes. “Currently we’re buying more than what we need. Quick commerce is creating some new markets, and people are spending more money as it is easy to spend now.”

Will Q-commerce take over e-commerce?

As the country embraces digital commerce, the battle between e-commerce and Q-commerce is intensifying. While e-commerce has a well-established presence with a vast user base, Q-commerce offers unmatched speed and efficiency. As Q-commerce players foray into other categories, will they take over e-commerce?

Ritesh Ghosal, former chief of marketing at Croma believes that Q-comm will not replace e-commerce. He says that Q-commerce will only be a successful mode for urgently needed products like trimmers, headphones etc.

Handa predicts, “In our category, Q-commerce will replace e-commerce purely based on better service. The only advantage that e-commerce holds is a variety of stock keeping units (SKUs). Like, some products will have a presence in e-commerce only like English Cheddar cheese, it will not be there in Q-comm, a customer can only get it through e-commerce.”

She says that quick commerce also provides a fast way to experiment with new products.

Kartik, says e-commerce will always be at the main stage for the brand and believes Q-commerce will be an incremental business for them.

She has observed that in quick commerce if a product gets listed, it starts to sell faster and gets a quick start as compared to the e-commerce route.

Challenges

While the benefits of quick commerce are evident for customers, these players in the backend face a lot of challenges including warehousing, labour expenses, and, most importantly, the orders are low-value, therefore the margins are less.

Balasubramanian Narayanan, vice president, of Teamlease services points out that the consumer preferences and buying patterns in the quick commerce segment evolve rapidly, making data collection and analysis a crucial aspect.

“Balancing data collection with user privacy is a key challenge. The data insights can help to create personalised experiences, predict demands, and improve operational efficiency. But this can be a challenge in this mode.”

Handa says in quick commerce, the biggest challenge is the stock keeping unit (SKU) mix, SKU selection is critical.

“Brands like Amazon, and Flipkart allow a plethora of SKUs, while quick commerce just allows a limited number, due to limitation of warehouse space and delivery time. The SKU selection by the brand becomes a critical aspect.”

In the physical realm, shelf presence plays an important role in reaching customers, in the online world, optimising the online presence is crucial to get the customers’ attention. She highlights that in quick commerce, the fight is to be at the top of the search bar.

“To be at the top, the brand should generate organic sales, secondly it’s about keyword bidding. A keyword that would search customers to find the product from the brand. The brand pays quick commerce players for this.”

Ghosal also agrees with this and states, “In the Q-commerce arena, most searches are by category rather than by brand. The brands have to tick more boxes in terms of categories/searches so that customers tend to look at them.”

(With additional inputs: Ruchika Jha)

(Published in Afaqs)

The Classic pivot: Charting ITC’s FMCG growth story

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October 13, 2023

Anand JC, Economic Times
13 October 2023

Once the butt of jokes in Dalal Street circles, 113-year-old ITC has turned a new leaf in recent years, as its strategy to derive higher revenue from its consumer business is bearing fruit, bit by bit.

Registered in Calcutta as the Imperial Tobacco Company, the FMCG major has always relied on its cigarettes and leaf tobacco business for a major chunk of its revenues. ITC’s true diversification move might have begun with the launch of its hotel in Chennai in 1975, including a failed attempt at the financial services business, but it wasn’t until August 2001 that the tale of the FMCG behemoth came to be.

Having relied on its cigarette business since 1910, ITC has increasingly sought to earn more from its ‘cleaner’ consumer goods products. In a 2018 interview, CEO Sanjiv Puri admitted that while the journey to diversify the company started a long time ago, it only got traction around 2008. Under Puri’s first term as the ITC chairman, the company embarked on the ‘ITC Next’ strategy. The first decade was focused on preparing the company for the transition, he said. ITC now can innovate products, create brands and allow “pro-neurs” or professional entrepreneurs to build businesses in FMCG.

The plan has worked

ITC, a darling of dividend-led investing lovers, has always been a long-term growth story in the making. Nearly two decades after entering the food business, the company holds a leadership position across categories.

As per the company’s latest annual report, it holds the leadership spot in the branded Atta market through Aashirvaad, cream biscuits segment via Sunfeast, bridges segment of snack foods via Bingo!, notebooks via Classmate and dhoop segment via Mangaldeep. Its Yippee noodles trails Nestle’s Maggi, as the latter continues to lead in a highly consolidated market. However, Yippee has managed to gobble up Maggi’s share at an enviable pace. Capturing these positions, this quickly is no easy feat either.

One of the things that worked for ITC is their understanding of the distribution of products, stemming from their strength in the tobacco business. ITC started exploring aggressively diversifying away from the tobacco business around the 90s, says Devangshu Dutta, head of retail consultancy Third Eyesight.

ITC’s foray into the food business was supported by its presence in the hotel business. “Some of the marquee products that used to be served in their hotel restaurants, packaged dal and so on, they packaged and sold but it was not a humungous success. It was marginal at best.”

“But they started understanding the distribution aspect because those were sold through traditional distribution channels,” Dutta says.

ITC also put in a lot of financial muscle behind the brand building, given no dearth of resources, Dutta says. This helped them grow rapidly in product categories in which they didn’t have a presence earlier on.

“Starting from scratch, particularly on the foods side, ITC has been one of the most successful companies in the last 15-20 years. Their overall revenue this year has been roughly Rs 19,000 crore, out of which Rs 15,000-16,000 is purely from foods segment,” Amnish Aggarwal, Head of Research, Prabhudas Lilladher told ET Online.

“For a company which started this business, maybe, say, two decades back, this is a very big achievement,” he says.

Unlike its commanding position in its cigarette business, ITC’s ‘other-FMCG’ ambitions faced stiff competition from local and national companies in categories including soaps, shampoos, atta, snacks, biscuits, noodles and confectioneries.

Supporting ITC’s ‘other-FMCG’ ambitions is its core competency, the cigarette business. ITC’s consumer business’ growth has weathered storms, in part, thanks to the cash flows generated by its cigarette business which has helped it create stronger brands, an essential part of any consumer-centric business. Through its cigarette business, ITC also gets unparalleled access to a network of brick-and-mortar stores that have a diverse presence across India.

Also complimenting its growth is ITC’s agri-business, a segment which has also grown in strength over the years. From 10 per cent in FY14, the agri-business in FY23 contributed around 24 per cent to the company’s revenue from operations, as per ET Online’s calculations. ITC over the years has invested in building a competitive agri-commodity sourcing expertise. Some of these structural advantages have facilitated the company’s sourcing of agri raw materials for ITC’s branded packaged foods businesses, be it towards its atta, dairy or spices.

Like its peers, ITC too has given a fair deal of importance to its digital push, with more and more companies launching their D2C platforms. These platforms help customers buy products directly from the company website without the hassle of dealing with channel partners, and at the same time, the companies get their hands on first-party data. Such access can help the company market its offerings better. ITC, like some of its other peers, has also been investing in start-ups to diversify its product portfolio. It recently invested in Yoga Bar and Mother Sparsh.

The numbers behind ITC’s consumer business behemoth

Built to engage in the tobacco business, ITC got into cigarette packaging nearly 100 years ago. Another intent in recent decades has been to focus more on the non-cigarette business.

Puri saw it coming.

Upon being asked about the FMCG business overtaking cigarettes, Puri had said “We do not give guidance. But it will certainly happen because the other businesses are growing faster.”

After contributing nearly 62 per cent to the overall revenue in FY14, the cigarettes business in FY23 contributed only around 37 per cent.

ET Online calculations show that the other-FMCG business contributed 17 per cent to the overall revenue in FY14, which grew to 25 per cent in FY23.

Data confirms the claims made in the above segment. ITC’s non-cigarettes businesses have grown over 31-fold and currently form over two-thirds of its net segmental revenues. The company’s other-FMCG business didn’t start turning consistent profits up until FY14. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength.

ITC’s Other FMCG segment (the second largest contributor to sales) is also witnessing strong earnings and growth momentum, unlike most consumer staples peers.

The segment clocked a revenue of 19 per cent YoY while Nestle and Britannia saw 21 and 11 per cent growth each. FMCG EBITDA performance was even better, with the margin expanding by 430 bps YoY to 13.3 per cent & EBITDA growing 2.1x YoY.

Laughing stock no more

For years, the cigarette business has funded the growth of ITC’s other businesses like non-cigarette FMCG products, sometimes to the ire of shareholders who weren’t happy with the slow growth in financials and scrip value.

A slower growth in scrip value meant that for years ITC was also the laughing stock among social media circles. The stock often remained elusive during market rallies in the previous decade, offering poor returns in comparison to FMCG peers. Between 2014 and July 2022, ITC rose with dividends rose 53 per cent while Nifty50 rose 200 per cent, as per moneydhan.com, a SEBI RIA. ITC’s shares trailed the Sensex for five out of eight years through 2020.

“In the last ten years, HUL has done far, far better than ITC. And if you look at other companies in the same universe, say Dabur, it has also given superior performance. ITC has actually underperformed many of the large consumer names,” Aggarwal said.

But fast forward to 2023, not only is it among the best performers within the benchmark index, ITC has even trumped it. While Nifty50 has gained around 17 per cent in the last year, ITC has grown nearly 40 per cent. The ITC scrip in July crossed a market capitalization of Rs 6 lakh crore, beating HUL to become the largest FMCG company.

Sin stock

Prompting a move away to other segments is the nature of the cigarettes business. Tobacco is toxic, and investors are increasingly recognising it as such. Sin stocks are shares of companies engaged in a business or industry that is considered unethical or immoral.

While Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing may be at a nascent stage in India, it is a serious parameter for global investors. Asia’s largest cigarette maker ITC cannot ignore it.

“The company sustained its ‘AA’ rating by MSCI-ESG –the highest amongst global tobacco companies– and was also included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Emerging Markets Index,” Puri noted in the company’s 2022 sustainability report.

Cigarettes, a bitter but essential overhang

For all the accolades for its gains in its other-FMCG business, ITC is nowhere close to ending its love for cigarettes, not that we are claiming it wants to. The Gold Flake-maker currently controls nearly 80% of the cigarette market.

The numbers in recent years suggest that the segment is flourishing more than ever before.

On an annualized basis, the return on depreciated cigarette assets is approaching a staggering 240%, three times the level two decades ago, as per a Bloomberg report. The entire legal cigarette industry was bleeding in the recent past due to punitive and discriminatory taxation on cigarettes. Taxes on cigarettes in India are multiple times higher than in developed countries viz. 17x of USA, 10x of Japan, 7x of Germany and so on, data shows.

But, companies are now recovering due to stable taxation. ITC’s three four-year cigarette sales CAGR are at their best levels since FY15 despite the company not taking material price increases over the last 13-14 months, as per a Motilal Oswal report.

ITC, which accounts for three out of every four cigarettes sold in the white market in the country, is currently seeing its best growth levels in over a decade, and is far superior to the flattish volumes of the past ten and twenty years.

(Published in Economic Times)