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In Midlothian, SunOpta’s sterile alternative milk plant nears completion

The Minnesota-based company uses aseptic manufacturing to terminate any traces of bacteria.

Bacteria is a milk processing plant’s mortal enemy.

At a new $100 million facility nearing completion in Midlothian, SunOpta workers are intricately building a sterile process that doesn’t strip the company’s plant-based milks of the flavor its customers expect.

“Aseptic manufacturing is very complex,” said Michael Buick, the senior vice president and general manager of SunOpta. “You’re looking at a sterile product going into a sterile package in a sterile environment.”

SunOpta, a Minnesota company on a mission to create organic, healthy and sustainable milk and food products, is in the first phase of opening a 285,000-square-foot facility.

The Midlothian plant will be the company’s largest to date. SunOpta operates 12 plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, three of which make products similar to Midlothian. Those plants are in Pennsylvania, California and Minnesota.

Angel Rodrigue works on a processor that sanitizes products at SunOpta’s manufacturing plant...
Angel Rodrigue works on a processor that sanitizes products at SunOpta’s manufacturing plant nearing completion in Midlothian.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

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.

The plant will make SunOpta milks, teas and broths. Three package sizes are typically made: 32-ounce slim and edge packages typically 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.

Buick said the technology and expertise needed to make the products is next level. That’s why the company has already hired 30 people in Midlothian and expects to reach 100 employees by the end of the year. SunOpta hopes to add 50 more next year to the new facility.

Anil Neti, senior plant manager for the Midlothian facility, said sustainability is a key part of the new building.

“Our definition of sustainability has a little bit more detail,” Neti said. “We’re not talking about only the environment. We are also talking about our local community, our employees and the stakeholders.”

SunOpta’s first plant-based milk manufacturing plant in Texas is set to open by the end of...
SunOpta’s first plant-based milk manufacturing plant in Texas is set to open by the end of the year.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

The company’s goal is to have zero waste, which Neti said is built into the plant’s design.

SunOpta isn’t stopping there. It already has plans to expand the Midlothian plant in a second phase, which includes an extra 150,000 square feet of production space. The company hasn’t committed to a timeline for that yet.

A second phase 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 a partner.

The company, with over 1,400 employees globally, has been eyeing a plant in the southern U.S. for two years, Buick said. It looked at locations within a 100-mile radius once it set its mind on the Dallas area. In August 2021, the company announced plans for the “mega-facility” that broke ground a month later.

It’s one of more than 1,100 company expansion or relocation projects drawn to Texas last year, with Dallas-Fort Worth being one of the biggest magnets.

“The growth of this particular area and the Dallas-Fort Worth area made us zero in on this as being the home,” Buick said.

Midlothian and Ellis County are giving SunOpta an eight-year tax abatement valued at about $7.3 million. The company will also be eligible for a grant of up to $200,000 for creating and retaining jobs, according to Midlothian City Council documents.

Minnesota-based SunOpta's sales of plant-based milks topped $812 million last year.
Minnesota-based SunOpta's sales of plant-based milks topped $812 million last year.(SunOpta investor presentation)

Plant-based milk is beating out consumption of fluid milk, or cow’s milk, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research. Statista reported in January that plant-based milks generate over $3 billion in revenue in the country.

Younger generations are drinking less fluid milk than previous generations, according to government research. People born in the 1970s, for example, drank less milk in their teens, 20s and 30s than those born in the 1960s did at the same age points. Those 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.

Plant-based milk alternatives also are beginning to cut into traditional cow’s milk sales, the USDA’s Economic Research Service reported.

SunOpta’s revenue grew about 3% last year to $812 million. Through the first six months of this year, sales are up 18% over the same period last year.

Buick said that’s momentum the alternative milk industry can build upon.

“It’s the way that we’re wired to win,” Buick said.

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