Plans to sell German food ingredients business Nutrinova are on hold as chemical company Celanese opts to keep the producer of Sunett sweetener, for now.
Reports in the German media last week suggested that the €4.1 billion firm was having difficulties in finding a buyer for Nutrinova, in particular because a key patent is soon to run out. But this week the owner brushed off the reports.
"We do not comment on speculation," a spokesperson for Celanese said to FoodNavigator.com. "Nutrinova is currently a good business with beautiful results, it makes sense to keep it in the company. We'll have to wait and see what happens afterwards."
But in the second quarter financial statement released last month, Celanese stated that pricing for its high intensity sweetener Acesulfame K, sold under the brand name Sunett by Nutrinova, had dropped because of a variety of factors, including "the upcoming expiration of the European and US production patents in 2005".
Nutrinova claims that its sweetener, roughly 200 times sweeter than sugar, is used in over 4000 food and beverage products worldwide. In the EU, acesulfame potassium - also known as the additive E950 - gained approval in 1983. The additive currently has approval in about 90 countries worldwide, including the US since 1988.
A year ago Celanese looked into shedding the German-based ingredients maker, saying that it was not part of its core business - technical polymers and acetate products. According to the spokesperson, the firm's position has since changed, opting instead to keep the "the good business at Nutrinova" to boost the group's overall bottom line, severely knocked in recent months by rising raw material prices and energy costs.
Despite the optimism, results for Nutrinova released last month showed a 10 per cent drop in net sales for the food ingredients business to €38 million, mainly due to a decline in prices - by 16 per cent - which was only partially offset by a 6 per cent increase in volumes.
Celanese said that pricing for Nutrinova's successful sweetener brand Sunett declined on "lower unit selling prices" associated with higher volumes to major customers and notably, increased competition in the market, particularly from Asia.
For some years now, and through a flurry of court cases, Nutrinova has defended the patent for its high intensity sweetener. But the issue of the impending expiry of the patent still looms over future business, and in particular potential buyers.
A news report last week in the Financial Times Deutschland claimed at least three parties are believed to have made bids for the business, but Celanese has failed to reach an agreement with the potential buyers over the price.
Diet soft drinks claim the biggest market share for artificial sweeteners, with over 87 million consumers in the US alone. According to a 1998 survey commissioned by the Calorie Control Council, 144 million American adults consume low-calorie, sugar-free products on a regular basis. In addition to acesulfame potassium, options for artificial sweeteners used by food and beverage makers currently include aspartame and saccharin.