Aker BioMarine has pursued a multi-faceted strategy for the development of its Superba line of krill oil ingredients. The final piece of the puzzle was developing its own processing facility, which has now reached full maturity.

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

March 11, 2024

9 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Aker switched from toll processing to its own dedicated krill oil processing plant. 
  • The facility in Houston went through a development phase but is now fully mature. 
  • The unique capabilities of the plant’s equipment and personnel mean it can be employed for additional kinds of ingredients. 

The raw material for krill oil supplements makes a long journey from the Southern Ocean to finished products on the shelf.  Aker BioMarine made a long journey, too, to become both the main harvester as well as the highest capability manufacturer of the ingredient. 

Natural Products Insider got an up-close look at Aker’s capabilities during a tour of the company’s manufacturing plant in Houston.  It was the first time since the plant’s inception a number of years ago that the company has granted access to a journalist. 

Aker, which is part of the larger Aker ASA with home offices in Oslo, Norway,  harvests krill to use the oil as an omega-3s source in human and pet supplements as well as an aquaculture feed.  

MegaRed campaign served as market maker 

The company’s Superba brand krill oil was the ingredient used in Schiff’s MegaRed line of supplements, which became enormously popular and helped drive the early growth of the category.  Schiff is now part of British CPG giant Reckitt (which went by Reckitt Benckiser at the time of the 2014 acquisition). 

The argument for krill oil as a source of omega-3s rests on its unique chemistry that includes a high ratio of phospholipids, which most people find to be more easily digested than the triglyceride form of many fish oil supplements.  Most consumers found there were no annoying “fishy burps” associated with krill oil use.   

Related:Aker Biomarine Buys Antarctic Krill Vessel

Consumer research done during the time of the initial MegaRed ascendancy (it was at one time the single biggest selling omega-3s SKU) found that the burp phenomenon was the primary reason consumers gave up on omega-3 supplements. Which is a problem, as omega-3s are prophylactic in nature and only exert their cardioprotective and other health properties with regular usage. 

The ingredient developers also did studies showing a bioavailability advantage for the important omega-3 molecules DHA and EPA when bound to krill oil’s phospholipid backbone.  The result was omega-3 health benefits achieved with fewer and smaller pills per day, something that consumers really took to with Schiff’s “small, red, powerful” advertising campaign. 

The Krill Wars 

During those early years of krill oil development, another major player contested center stage — French Canadian firm Neptune.  That contest, which featured endless rounds of patent infringement and other lawsuits that played out in courtrooms around the world, came to be known as The Krill Wars. 

 Aker, though second to the stage, had the resources of a large corporation on its side (Aker ASA’s annual revenues are around $19 billion). And the corporate leadership was enthusiastic (to put it mildly) about the future of krill as a human health ingredient. 

Neptune was fueled more by grit than by a well filled war chest. The millions spent on lawyers combined with a tragic explosion and fire at the company’s extraction facility in Quebec ultimately proved too much to bear. 

Neptune sold its interests in krill oil to Aker in 2017.  While the Norwegian company won the battle, the millions it spent on the war from its side was money that could have been spent on further development of the ingredient, which retarded the development of the category.

Building harvesting expertise and sustainability bona fides 

In the beginning, then, Aker concentrated on developing the raw material side of the business.  The company harvests its krill in the far South Atlantic Ocean near the Antarctic Peninsula.  Geographers have come to refer to that world-girdling stretch of ocean that rings Antarctica as the Southern Ocean.  It is the primary habitat of Eupahsia superba, the species of krill that forms the dense, but patchy swarms that are the basis of the continent’s food chain. 

Antarctica is unique among the world’s large landmasses in that it has almost no terrestrial plant life. It has been said without much exaggeration that everything in the region either feeds on krill directly or preys on something that feeds on krill. 

To ensure that this vital resource is not disrupted, several nations came together to form the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in 1982.  The organization both sanctions research into krill abundance and health and sets catch limits that are pegged at a very conservative 1% of the overall theoretical biomass. 

Aker is one of the major participants in that process by donating time in its onboard laboratories for research as well helping to gather data via autonomous sail drones and other means. 

In addition to paying attention to sustainability concerns, Aker also pioneered an innovative method for harvesting the krill itself. The bodies of krill are delicate and packed with enzymes. They rupture easily and when that happens, they spoil very quickly. So, pulling a big net full of tons of krill aboard a vessel, with the animals lower in the net being crushed by those above, is far from ideal. 

In Aker’s harvesting method the krill are pumped out of the submerged net and are never out of the water before the initial processing starts aboard the fishing vessel, where the krill are washed, dried, ground and instantly frozen. 

After building a fishing fleet homeported in Montevideo, Uruguay, that is now three vessels strong with a fourth in concept phase, Aker now accounts for the lion’s share of the world’s krill harvest. 

‘Muscling up’ the IP 

The krill Aker harvested was processed at a toll manufacturing facility in Valencia, Spain.  While the relationship was satisfactory, it was not ideal from an innovation standpoint, said Aker CEO Matts Johansen. 

“We started in this business in 2006 like children,” Johansen said. “We didn’t know how difficult it would be. Then the krill wars started. I think of that as stupid youth doing stupid things.” 

But Johansen said not all the millions of dollars that went up in legal smoke was wasted. 

“It shaped the industry in an important way,” he said. “It forced us to muscle up our IP and shaped the company we are today.” 

Taking control over production 

To flex those IP muscles, Aker needed full control over its production process, Johansen said.   

The company found an existing food processing plant in Houston that seemed ideal for their purposes. For starters, Houston is a major seaport, which is a big plus for an ingredient that must arrive in a refrigerated vessel. 

Also, the plant was a former ice cream manufacturing facility, and came with a large freezer ideal for holding a sufficient inventory of ground, frozen krill awaiting processing. 

SCI_Houston_Lab_2_cred_Aker_BioMarine.jpg

Houston plant as innovation driver 

As far as that processing is concerned, Johansen said there was a steep learning curve that could only be mastered with extensive tinkering, something that toll manufacturers aren’t interested in. A key part of that process was bringing on Noelia Castro as CEO of AkerBioMarine Manufacturing, the entity under which the plant and its operations are housed.

“The first step for that was to get our own plant in Houston,” Johansen said. 

“The main issue was the smell and taste. When you’d open a bottle of krill oil soft gels it would just stink.” 

The smell issue has been mostly conquered, Johansen said.  Just how that was done is a trade secret, one that sets the Aker ingredients apart, he said. 

Aker was also able to use the proprietary process in place in Houston to develop a new generations of krill oil ingredients, dubbed Superba 2 and Superba Boost. 

Market tumult forced reassessment 

Having that manufacturing capability sorted out and momentum gathering in the innovation pipeline helped Aker cope with recent tumult in the international krill oil market, Aker officials said. 

In late 2020, just as the global pandemic was upending markets of all sorts, boosting some ingredient categories while depressing others, like omega-3s, the South Korean government shut down all krill oil sales in the country, where krill oil had been booming. Aker attributed this to unscrupulous players entering the market with substandard products and over- the- top marketing claims. 

“We lost $30 million in sales overnight,” Johansen said. 

“That exposed some gaps in our strategy,” said Simon Seward, CEO of Aker’s Human Health Ingredients group.  

“It was an opportunity to put a turnround plan in place. Not only for Korea.  We could ask, are we optimal in Europe? What do we want to do in the U.S.?” he added. 

“2022 was a challenging year in a lot of respects,” Seward added. 

But 2023 brought new prospects, including a government-sanctioned reopening of the South Korean market. 

“Last year we grew 40% year on year. The building blocks we put into place really came to fruition,” Seward said. 

Krill as omega-3s supply alternative 

That turnaround plan comes at a potentially propitious time when some marketers of omega-3s finished goods are looking toward krill to cope with supply constraints. 

The news about the health of the Peruvian anchovy fishery has been ominous.  And there is another underlying dynamic that is affecting the omega-3s market, Johansen said. 

For a long time, the aquaculture industry has moved toward feeding the farmed fish less and less marine-sourced feed, substituting that with plant products.  That was successful, Johansen said, but has now reached what seems to be a natural limit at about 20% of the overall feed for fish farms coming from the ocean, not the 80% or more the industry started with. Tests with trying to cut the proportion of marine-sourced feed even more have been unsuccessful, he said. 

“The demand of fish oil for aquaculture industry then started to grow with the growth in demand for farmed fish.  The salmon industry has had growth at 5% to 10% every year for the past 30 years,” Johansen said. 

That has driven fish oil prices up, he said, lessening the price gap with krill oil supplements.  And, while the overall harvest limits are set by CCAMLR, Aker has not been using its full quota, so some growth in the raw material supply for krill is possible, he said. 

New products, partnerships in store 

With the renewed rosy prospects for krill, Aker officials said the company is looking to capitalize with a slew of new products and partnerships. 

Seward sad the company is looking at new combination products, such as pairing krill with CoQ10, turmeric and other ingredients. 

And Johansen said the Houston plant is capable of processing other kinds of raw material and promised more news on that shortly. 

 

About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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