Being an entrepreneur in the feed industry, one needs a unique mix of optimism, curiosity and perseverance. Pioneering in the field of natural feed additives like probiotics and mycotoxin binders, says Erich Erber, founder of Biomin, is like walking a road which is full of trials & errors. None of them, however, could take away the focus of delivering innovative products.
“It was just great fun to create something new. In the early 1980s, the use of antibiotics was the standard – everybody was using them. When I started in the industry, animal performance growth supported by AGP was 10-15%. Ten years later, however, the performance increase was down to 3-4%. The decline of the efficacy was obvious and just to increase the dosing was not a solution for the long term. It was quite clear to me that the antibiotics would not have a sustainable impact on animal nutrition in the future. They belong to the curative use and not to the nutrition. My feeling from this practical experience was: We needed something new.
My friend, the late Dr Herbert Egger was the first, in the early 80s, to produce probiotics, on a very small scale in a plant in the southern part of Austria, in Styria. His product was called Pronifer and consisted of microbials isolated from rumen. I got to know him quite well and we became one of his distributors. He indeed was one of the pioneers in the field of probiotics and lactic-acid bacteria.
However, when selling the probiotic to several feedmillers initially, it just wasn’t a continuous success and we had to try to find out why the product had failed. Looking into it, there was always something new to be learned, the formulation, the right stability or many other things, such as that one cannot combine probiotics with certain antibiotics for example.
Finally when I decided to start my own company, I created a premix product line with the probiotics of Dr Egger in it and so I could make sure that the formulation was correct. In 1983, at the age of 31, I started Biomin as a company with three staff. I told myself: I’ll give it one year, and if it doesn’t work within one year, I’ll close down and get a job somewhere else.Luckily it went well – today our products are sold globally and we are even selling probiotics in Korea, the most competitive probiotic market in the world. Koreans believe strongly in the probiotics concept because of their daily dish kimchi – cabbage fermented with lactic bacteria. Koreans can eat kimchi for breakfast, lunch, dinner or even at night. If you can sell probiotics in Korea, you can do it everywhere.
I am a farmer’s son, my family were animal traders, particularly pigs. I had to help on the trade from a very early age. I studied agricultural engineering – and did an internship in Canada, where I got to know large scale farming for the first time. After that I went to Ghana for two years, doing work in a construction material company – completely out of range of agriculture. But I learnt a lot. I learnt how to move on in a developing country where nothing works but you still have to work your way somehow.
Back in Austria I started my own company in 1983, I came up with the idea to name it after ‘biological minerals’ – bio-min. Afterwards it became clearer to me that I wanted to make a product line that is purely probiotic.
In 1985, we bought Interpremix, a small premix factory which became our first production facilitiy. The founder, Dr Halama, had been one of the first to think about a product that can adsorb or deactivate mycotoxins – and had a toxin adsorbing product developed which was branded as Antitox Plus. At first, looking at the formula, I didn’t think that this product was of any use. Even theses from the Veterinary University in Vienna concluded: This product does not work. Dr Halama, who stayed on as a consultant, had however been able to convince a Taiwanese businessman to become a distributor of this product. We shipped a container and I thought they would never order again. But suddenly, we got another order from Taiwan. It made me think: Why are the Taiwanese using a product that should not be effective?
I went to Prof Leibetseder at the Veterinary University Vienna and asked if they could do some in vitro studies with the product. Finally, after we saw the results I was stunned. For deoxynivalenol (DON) and ZON, common in Europe the adsorption was close to zero. But with aflatoxins which are abundant in Taiwan the efficacy was 98%. And that is why the customers in Asia got good results since they had to primarily deal with aflatoxins and less with Fusariumtoxins.
At that time, when farmers in Europe were faced with corn silage contaminated with DON, the recommendation was: Feed it to the bull, as he can cope with it, there was never any growth retardation. I wondered, why can a bull deal with it? There must be some kind of mechanism in the rumen that can either decompose or make use of this molecule. So when we started our own research team in Tulln, Austria we designed an artificial rumen model to find out what detoxification mechanism takes place in the rumen fluid. After half a year of conditioning the rumen fluid with toxins and more than one year of isolation experiments, we identified a microbe that was able to detoxify DON and other members of the trichothecene family; the result was BBSH, an Eubacterium strain ‘new to the world’, found in 1997.
It is very difficult to ferment as it is a very strange and unusual bacterial strain, but in the end this was the first breakthrough in fermentation technology in our company. The registration of any product for mycotoxins deactivation in the EU proved very difficult since there was no classification in the EU for this kind of feed additives until recently. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had more or less the view of: Everything above the maximum mycotoxin regulation level must not be used as a feed material. So in Europe, nobody is allowed to blend or dilute the contaminated feed – we simply had to burn it.
Now, finally, there is a category where the products for mycotoxin deactivation can be put in: As a product with a claim to both deactivate mycotoxins and to bind mycotoxins. We expect first ruling on the EU feed registration law by the end of this year or early next year. Now that is the real breakthrough.
Probiotics of natural growth promoters in general often have a bad image. Often I hear: If they are so good, why didn’t they cover the market yet? I think the answer is very simple. Antibiotic growth promoters have been existing for 40-50 years and had a large R&D behind them. Besides most AGPs have been developed for veterinary or human use and the pharma industry had its product applications expanded into the feed industry. There was reasonable amount of research and it was paid for by somebody else than the feed industry.
If we develop a probiotic now like PoultryStar or AquaStar solely for the feed industry, we have to pay not only for R&D cost to develop such products, but we also have to go through all the registration and other regulatory hurdles for just one possible market: The feed industry.
Taking the probiotics as an example we are still in really early stages. Only now, with the ban of AGP happening in Europe, Korea and Taiwan – and China thinking about it – the industry will begin to invest millions in new NGP product lines. Once when we get big spendings in new product lines, we can enhance better product formulations.
Mycotoxins are perhaps the best example. We started 25 years ago with a very simple binder. After 25 years, now we have enzymes.”
I am very convinced that we will be able to feed 9 or 10 billion people in 2050, if only we allow technology to develop how it needs to, under a pretext of a stable political and war free future. If there is a third world war, like many have predicted, then things might be completely different. We can see that feed conversion rations in chickens have come down from 2.5 to 1.4 to 1.1, in pigs they have come down significantly, too. And the more expensive the feed becomes, the more interesting it becomes for the feed miller to use products that can enhance the feed conversion ratios.
Feed prices and prices for feed commodities will go up – there’s no doubt as the world population is going up, and less land is available, so we have to be more efficient. Humans are very innovative in order to overcome challenges and to improve, e.g. the genetics of the animals and the crops; the formulation of feed additives; enzymes will help us use commodities that would otherwise not be utilisable in the feed ratio; and I am a strong believer that GMO will help us overcome the feed shortages. All this hype in Europe about Frankenstein food is only because we are still lucky to have enough.”
The Erber Group and Biomin
Erich Erber (58), is the director of the Executive Board of the Erber Group, which consists of four divisions:
• Romer Labs
• Strategic InvestmentsThe four divisions work together as a complete partner in the field of safe food production, from detection to control. The group’s total sales is about €200 million; total number of employees exceeded 1,000 this year. Biomin is the major division within the Erber Group, taking about 80% of its total sales. The company is headquartered in Herzogenburg, Austria, with a large research laboratory in Tulln (see photo). At the moment, a new head office is being constructed to accommodate its growing number of employees in one location. Apart from Herzogenburg, the natural feed additive producer has regional headquarters in San Antonio, TX, USA as well as Singapore. Biomin alone has 47 business units. Its product lines include acidifiers, phytogenics, probiotics, preservation products and enzymes. The best-known product is Mycofix – a mycotoxin deactivator.