Raisio has formed a 12-person panel, which the company claims includes Nestle and Kraft Foods executives and a former official of H.J. Heinz Co., to help it draw up a five-year development plan for Benecol.
The executives were not identified. Officials at those companies in the U.S. could not confirm such involvement.
The company expects to hear the panel's conclusions and recommendations on production, demand, marketing and other issues by January.
$22.3 MIL IN SALES
In addition to margarine, Raisio markets breakfast cereals, yogurts and rye breads. Benecol sales in Finland, the only country where it is now available, for the first 10 months of 1996 amounted to $22.3 million, the company said.
Benecol will enter its first international market in January with a launch in Sweden through a Swedish dairy company-Carlshamn Meijeri-that Raisio purchased in late October.
The product's cholesterol-reducing ingredient is vegesterol, derived from green plants and trees, including pine trees. The ingredient is said to be difficult to obtain in the sizable amounts needed for large-scale production.
Raisio claims it is meeting only 40% of domestic Finnish demand for the product, despite its steep retail price of $14 a pound, compared to about $1 a pound for local brands of ordinary margarine.
The company said it is scrambling to sign long-term contracts with forestry companies that produce vegesterol as a by-product.
"We have been approached by major multinational food groups around the world which are interested in producing and marketing Benecol in their local markets and regionally," said Jaako Laaksonen, Raisio's Helsinki-based director of international marketing. "We have already decided we will not engage in an international launch alone. We hope to take one or more multinational partners on board."
YOGURT, CHIPS, TOO
He said a Raisio research team is working on cholesterol-lowering Benecol versions of other fat-containing products like yogurt and potato chips.
Benecol was launched in Finland in November 1995 with a modest print and TV ad campaign from Concept, Helsinki. Ads promoted the spread as the answer for consumers who wanted to lower cholesterol levels.
Despite its stiff price, and a slightly unpleasant taste that has been compared to pine cones, Benecol sold out immediately and has been in short supply ever since.
"Vegesterol may be the key ingredient to Benecol's success, but it is also the main problem to releasing its potential as a significant international success story" because of its scarcity, said Juusi Hivela, Raisio's marketing director for Finland.
The National Food Administration, Finland's equivalent of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, has accepted Benecol as a special dietary product. In theory, this should allow Benecol to be registered in the other 15 European Union markets.
Raisio said it has patented Benecol in the U.S. and expects to secure patents for Europe by yearend and Asia in 1997.
Chris Jakubik, a food industry analyst with Salomon Bros., said "the question is if it's a viable product and what the length of the approval process would be in the U.S. or U.K."