Transforming the food and nutrition ingredient supply chain

Ingredients4U.com offers ingredients buyers and supply chain managers an e-commerce platform that enables them to select, quality check and obtain a quote for supply at the touch of a button. Dr Kevin Robinson spoke to CEO Donald Tang to find out more

“Whatever your ingredient requirements, you now have the ability to source them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year, whatever your time zone,” says Donald, adding: “Ingredients4U.com offers forward-thinking ingredients buyers a new and superior way to source best-in-class ingredients using technology that consumers don’t think twice about. It’s not necessarily a novel approach, but we believe it will transform how the ingredients marketplace does business.”

“Going back to the beginning, we actually started the business 15 years ago as a trading company in China, selling nutritional ingredients from Chinese manufacturers to foreign customers."

"Since 2013, we’ve added an international supply chain service and set up local offices in Europe, the US, Australia and Japan. Currently, our orders are shipped from Ingredients4U.com’s warehouse in the Netherlands to ensure that deliveries within the EU and UK are made in a timely manner.”

“What this means,” notes Donald, “is that our customers don’t have to import things by themselves; we can deliver bulk goods to their door … at speed. No one has to wait for 3 months whenever they want to buy something from China. So, Ingredients4U started to take shape in 2018 when we took a good look at the business model and identified a number of issues or pain points within the industry that needed to be addressed.”

Donald Tang

Delving a little deeper, Donald explains that, at the time, the level of supply chain efficiency in the sector was “quite low.” He says: “We had 200 active customers in Europe and beyond, yet all of them were asking our sales and service teams the same questions, every day: how much inventory is available, how much does a specific quantity of product X cost, can you send me the quality documents and/or how long will it take to receive product Y?”

“We realised that there were flaws and inefficiencies to overcome. At the same time, there were a lot of not-so-transparent issues to tackle. Quality was a problem! Of course, with nutritional ingredients, unlike cars or clothes, for example, you’re just buying powder. Unless you test every batch, which would be hugely expensive, you don’t always know what you’re buying."

"In a competitive market, you might have certain companies selling low-quality product at high-quality prices, etc., which is not only harmful for the industry, but could lead to severe health problems for consumers.”

“Many people were unaware of these practices because they simply couldn’t come to China to inspect every batch. So, with some unscrupulous companies or distributors intentionally hiding traceability information to maintain their profits, our customers couldn’t be 100% sure of the quality of the ingredients in their cargo.”

Making a difference

Ingredients4U.com is completely transparent in terms of their suppliers, offering source partner/supplier information profiles and certification related to individual ingredients, guaranteeing that the ingredients meet all requirements needed by the customer.

“The change was needed,” says Donald, “so we started to use a B2B E-commerce platform to run our business. Our concept is to have an easy-to-use online platform with which we can show our inventory information and tailor a quote based on a comprehensive price offer system for individual customers according to various criteria."

"With more than 25 countries in Europe, providing a door-to-door service based on different quantities to different postcodes is quite a commitment, but it means that customers have easy access to all the information they need in one place.”

Yuxing factory visit

As well as sourcing ingredients, interested parties can also download relevant quality documentation and audit questionnaires. “Everything is available at the touch of the button and downloadable, so you can share these data sheets with the wider quality control team."

"On top of that, users can also check additional certifications such as whether the ingredient is Halal, Kosher, vegetarian or vegan-certified and, again, these certificates can be printed out as part of the order.”

“In terms of quality,” says Donald, “because we’re located in China, we know the manufacturers and we know how good their products are. This is critical in terms of global food safety regulations and meeting customer requirements."

"We can also help with several aspects of education too. We can inform Chinese suppliers what they need to do to comply with regulations in Japan or France, for example, and when they do, that’s when we accept their business, upload their documents and add their products to the platform. Again, we’re taking concerns about the quality control away from our customers.”

Making the right noise

Another barrier that Donald identified with Chinese manufacturers was that, even if they made good quality ingredients, they didn’t really know how to market them or develop an international business.

“With no local supply chain service or overseas offices, they were floundering,” he says. “This is something else we can help with. For me Ingredients4U is more than just an e-commerce platform; we can also help suppliers to find the right customers, make introductions and add value to the industry.”

“Additionally, users can source trend reports and keep abreast of trading prices, which might rise or fall depending on availability and usage."

"Our aim is to offer a 360-degree service to every customer, irrespective of size or reach, especially when they’re seeking the latest innovative ingredient for a new launch.”

I suggest to Donald that, in the absence of trade shows and face-to-face meetings, that the industry now needs a different type of communication system to facilitate procurement.

He agrees: “Irrespective of the pandemic, there are other drivers at work. We’ve learnt lessons from other sector about transparency, data and adulteration. Now, people want traceability information, they want to know whether their purchase is sustainable and they care about the environment — not only for their own product but the raw materials they use as well.”

“Our customers are looking for safe, responsibly sourced products and ingredients that help people to enhance their immune system, for example. For many ingredients and finished products, price will remain a key consideration; but, quality, traceability and sustainability are key factors for buyers when choosing a supplier.”

Vendor certification

“Ingredients4U.com is not just a transactional best-price site, it offers complete service,” says Donald: “There’s logistical support and shipping advice, as well as an unrivalled directory of products that have been sourced from leading world-class ingredient brands and companies across the globe. All you need to do is register, then search for products, check stock levels and get a quote in real-time.”

However, becoming a listed supplier isn’t a given. “Before we select or accept a vendor company, we go to their facilities, examine their quality control and food safety protocols and make sure they’re compliant,” he explains: “If they’re not up to scratch, we don’t just reject them, though, we talk to them and teach them how to improve their facility and/or their documentation practices to be able to provide safe and acceptable goods to the market.”

“Before we recommend any suppliers to any customers, or even before we add them to our platform, we have to be 100% sure that all the quality, sustainability, transparent traceability and documentation boxes have been ticked."

"Certainly, the pandemic may have acted as an accelerant as people look for alternative ways to connect, but there are a lot of benefits in terms of raising profiles, education and bringing companies together to do better business.”

The data debate

With a digital platform in place and the ability to track enquiries and purchases, I wonder whether the data being generated is helping Ingredients4U.com to identify emerging trends or highlight new business opportunities.

“Perhaps in the future,” says Donald: “Traffic is picking up, but we’re still in the process of optimising the site and our data traceability system. Yes, there’s a lot of information about customer demand, etc., but not enough, yet, to yield predictive insights. Compared with B2C business, B2B is still quite traditional and involves a lot of human-to-human communication, especially when it comes to large-scale purchases.”

“At the same time, though, the world is increasingly adapting to digitalisation and benefiting from platforms such as ours. There’s no need to travel, no jet lag, no waiting around for hours at trade shows for a potential customer to appear. Online digital business models will no doubt become the norm and are already popular with a wide range of customers and buyers."

"It’s not just a short-term trend, it’s the future of procurement. As I said, it’s not a new concept; it’s been happening for a while. But, now, COVID-19 has propelled or fast-tracked its implementation and is revolutionising how we think and how we do business on a global platform.”

I agree. Digital e-portals could not only become a valuable addition to the way we source and use ingredients, they could also help to address issues of quality, provide a better route to market and facilitate buying and selling within the nutraceutical and food ingredient industry. There’s a lot to be gained.

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