Precision fermentation technology enables the programming of microorganisms to produce complex organic molecules, such as proteins.
The technology can be harnessed to develop animal-based proteins – like casein or whey – to recreate dairy products, without the cow. Examples marketed to date include US-based Perfect Day’s whey protein beta-lactoglobulin, which is sold B2B to brands in the milk and ice cream categories, and the ingredient heme derived from Impossible Foods Precision Fermentation.
Although commercially available – at least in the US (the EU has not yet approved a dairy alternative derived from precision fermentation for the market) – precision fermentation proteins have not yet reached the scale required to truly disrupt their conventional counterparts.
There’s no shortage of innovation, suggested Dr. Jeremy Chignell, senior fermentation researcher at BIO-CAT Microbials, a GMP-certified facility that supplies the precision fermentation industry, among others, and former senior fermentation specialist. fermentation at the Good Food Institute (GFI).
“We always need more innovation…there are definitely so many companies doing amazing things from a scientific perspective,” he told delegates during the recent Future Food Series: Precision Fermentation webinar, co-hosted by ProVeg Incubator and Zintinus.
“But I think at some point the industry is going to be like, ‘Can this make money? Can it become ubiquitous enough for consumers to overcome some of the hesitations they might have? »
To achieve this, the precision fermentation industry faces many obstacles. The “biggest” hurdle, according to Dr. Chignell, is increasing production.
“I think the biggest constraint right now, in terms of turning this from a lot of very energetic start-ups doing brilliant work on a smaller scale…to a full-scale industry…is, to put it bluntly, tank space in the world.
“Where are we going to grow these organisms? How are we going to make enough ovomucoid egg protein, casein or whey? Where are we going to do this on the scale we’re talking about, from a bulk protein perspective? »
To disrupt the conventional protein market, precision proteins from fermentation will have to compete. The animal industry’s commoditized proteins are made for “almost nothing” and sold with “tiny markups”, the fermentation specialist pointed out.
Competing with this economic model, in the long term, represents a challenge for this nascent sector, particularly given the current constraint on fermentation volume.
The vast majority of fermentation capacity is owned by multinational ingredient suppliers. “If they don’t want to make alternative proteins, where are we going to make them?
“I think that’s one of the biggest constraints and one of the biggest hurdles the industry has to deal with.”
That’s not to say that “the DuPonts and Cargills” of the world don’t want to be involved. Yes, according to Dr. Chignell. “These are just two examples, but there are many of them and they are at the forefront of alternative proteins. They want to be involved. They see the market, they see where it’s headed – they want to be part of it.
The problem is that much of the world’s fermentation capacity is already reserved, whether for pharmaceuticals, for other food products or for bio products such as lactic acid.
“Are they interested in converting their massive lactic acid capacity, where they make a lot of money, to make protein for food consumption? It’s not even clear if you can make that conversion into food consumption…”
The fermentation scientist sees potential in a ‘middle space’, between start-up capacity and the 300,000 liter capacity used by multinational ingredient suppliers.
“There’s definitely a lot of space in between, so it can be a great place for businesses looking to expand. The investment is not prohibitive…and once you can demonstrate you can do it [at that capacity]then when “full-scale” commercial capacity becomes available, you will be ready to set up the process.
Dr. Chignell continued: “Nobody wants to say, ‘I did it in my 100L pilot scale, so I’m ready to go to 300,000L’. That’s not a rational approach. It would be a hard lesson for anyone to learn. which company.
What about consumer acceptance?
Aside from regulation, which is of course a major hurdle to commercializing fermented precision foods, the other key challenge to market success is consumer acceptance.
German precision fermentation start-up Formo, which targets the cheese market, recently surveyed consumers in the UK, Germany, Singapore and the US to find out how they react to the general concept of cheese fermentation. accuracy.
Formo conducted the research in partnership with Mercy For Animals and Fordham University.
Regarding the production method, a majority of respondents expressed either a desire to deepen the understanding of the process, or unease. “Many wanted to know if the product was natural or artificial, leading from there to questions about the safety of the product and the bodily effects it might have, with some looking for data that might answer these questions for them,” wrote the authors of the report.
What regulatory expert Hannah Lester took from these findings is that the “biggest issue” with consumer acceptance is safety. Consumers look to regulatory authorities to “endorse” these products and “say they are safe,” she told delegates at the Future Food event.
“If regulatory authorities say they are safe, consumers are more likely to try these products,” pointed out Lester, who is chief regulatory officer and principal consultant at Amgen Regulatory Consulting and head of regulatory affairs at French cultured foie gras start-up Gourmey.
Fermify Founder and CEO Eva Sommer thinks consumers are ready, especially in the cheese category.
Fermify is an automated production platform for large-scale dairy protein production. Prior to founding Fermify, Sommer was co-founder and CPO of cultured fat startup Peace of Meat, which was acquired by Israeli 3D-printed cultured meat company Meat-Tech 3D.
The category of plant-based milk alternatives is a good example, Sommer argued. When these products were first introduced, they were hard to find and “not even good”. Thanks to increased market penetration and improvements in R&D, the perception of plant milk today is “really high”. “We’ve already reached a point where no further improvements are needed because people already love it.”
In the category of vegetable cheeses, on the other hand, R&D is not quite there, we were told.
“Vegetable cheese is not good at all. Most of the time it’s a clump of fat and starch and people don’t like that… I’ve figured out over the last two or three years that people are really hoping for proteins derived from precision fermentation for cheese simply because there was no alternative for it. .
“People want to be plant-based, but they don’t want to sacrifice cheese.
As long as the product isn’t unhealthy, consumers are “really ready,” Sommer continued. Consumers of different generations and different geographies are “really open to this”, it really “amazes” them that we can produce it “without the cow”.
Setting up the story
Besides scale, funding, regulation and consumer acceptance, what could be holding fermented precision foods from achieving market success?
According to regulatory expert Lester, the sector should be ready to fight against “bribes” from traditional agricultural actors.
“I think that could potentially be very important, especially with agricultural actors and the powerful lobbies they have. I think that could be a potential obstacle,” she recounted the event.
To combat these pressure groups, the precision fermentation industry will need to “define the narrative”, engage with traditional agricultural players and, of course, engage with consumers.
“We [cannot] allow people who are against this industry to set the narrative and start calling it “Frankenstein food” like we did with GMOs in the 90s.
“So I think that’s something that could be a potential challenge, but we have the opportunity to set the narrative, to engage and educate people about what we’re doing and why it’s a good idea. ”