Q&A with Jan Klerken: Reinventing the mushroom
Jan Klerken is founder of Scelta Mushrooms, one of the world’s largest mushroom growers. He explains how his business has shifted its priorities in response to the pandemic, and how new food technology is paving the way for healthier (and tastier) mushrooms.
How has your business changed over the past 12 months? Has Scelta been affected by Covid-19?
Fortunately, we have seen strong growth in food retail – particularly in our key markets, the US and UK. Mushrooms are seen as an ideal replacement for animal proteins, or as a complementary ingredient to animal proteins in blended products.
Demand by the big soup makers – Heinz, Unilever, Nestlé and Campbell's – which are our customers for frozen mushrooms and mushroom concentrate, has picked up tremendously. The same goes for the pizza industry.
We produce a lot of appetisers, and that business is also growing well. But because of Covid we have had to change some of the recipes to accommodate holding times in restaurants and to cater to the home-delivery market. That has required intensive cooperation with our customers.
We have also looked beyond our existing markets and created new demand. A lot of products were developed because of spare capacity in the workforce. We think about 16% of our business could be totally new in the coming year.
In developing those new products, which areas have you focused on?
There is a strong drive to improve health benefits, taste and sustainability. Healthy ingredients are a strong focus for us at the moment. Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be thy medicine’. That was in about 350 BC, but I am 100% convinced that that should be our direction.
We are working on new mushroom strains that have more taste, which could also hold other vitamins that we could add. Although the weather can be very nice in Europe, almost everyone suffers from a shortage of vitamin D, and we have been approved by the European Food Standards Agency to expose mushrooms to UV light – which enhances vitamin D content. We are also using this to create a range of new products, including capsules.
Another healthy dietary source is glutamate, or umami, from fermented mushrooms. With that, we are able to reduce sodium levels in bread and other foods. We are also working on high-protein mushrooms based on mycelium, which can be added to ready meals and bread. With the technologies that are available, we can make higher-quality food that contains more nutrients.
Finally, in packaging, we have created the Ecopouch. It uses 60–70% less material than traditional cans or jars, so it creates less waste. It is also shelf-stable, so we do not need expensive, energy-intensive cooling. You can transport and store it at ambient temperatures for two years, which is a real advantage in terms of sustainability.
When did you decide to steer Scelta Mushrooms towards sustainability, and how have you stayed competitive?
In 2002, I was a very early adopter of sustainable practices, and I changed the policy of the company.
Since then, sustainability has been part of Scelta’s DNA, and we are seeing that sustainability is a business model where you can make money: we have grown from a small mushroom grower in the Netherlands to an international company that exports mushrooms all over the world.
There is more cost involved in the beginning, and it takes time to implement these changes and convince people of the merits. But at the end of the day, it is more resilient. Cheap is not always best. So instead of asking how I could save money, I asked how I could spend money to make my products more attractive.