The news was announced as Perfect Day - one of the pioneers in the so-called 'precision fermentation' space - announced a $350m Series D funding round co-led by Temasek and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, taking its total funding up to $750m.
Modern Kitchen products (which come in strawberry, harissa pepper, and spring onion + chive flavors) are now available for pre-sale online and will be sold in selected retailers in southern California later this year (SRP $7.99).
The front of pack features the Perfect Day logo, and the words, ‘Animal-free cream cheese spread made from plants and flora.’
Asked whether consumers would know what this means, or whether they might see the word ‘plants’ and assume the product is 100% plant-based (it isn’t) The Urgent Company general manager Paul Kollesoff told us that the products contain a milk allergen warning on the front and back of pack, while the ingredients list includes the term ‘non-animal whey protein.’
‘Animal-free cream cheese spread made from plants and flora…’
Messaging doesn’t always filter down to the store level, he acknowledged (FoodNavigator-USA recently spotted Brave Robot ice cream in a Gelson’s Market store in southern California with a ‘plant-based’ sticker attached to the shelf below, despite the fact it contains milk allergens). But with any new concept, it takes time to educate industry and consumers, he explained.
“We’ve been evolving the terms [used to describe the technology] over the last 12 to 18 months on Brave Robot and we’ve learned a lot… The whole ethos of The Urgent Company is to be as transparent as possible, so we're using flora [a term The Urgent co believes is more consumer friendly than fungi or microbes] to make our [dairy] proteins, while the rest of the formulation is made from plants.
“But we want to be very clear that this contains a milk allergen.”
While retailers ultimately decide where they will merchandise the products, Modern Kitchen animal-free cream cheese would ideally sit next to dairy products such as Philadelphia on shelf, rather than next to plant-based cheeses, said Kollesoff.
While using so-called ‘precision fermentation’ to genetically engineer fungi, yeast and other microbes to produce proteins such as whey, collagen and egg albumin without animals is still very new, products containing these ingredients are beginning to hit the market.
And major CPG companies are exploring the potential of the technology, especially in categories such as cheese, where plant-based brands have struggled to replicate the taste, nutrition, and functionality of animal proteins, said Kollesoff.
Down the road, the hope is that ‘animal-free dairy’ becomes a clear subsegment of the dairy set spanning multiple categories, added Kollesoff, who said the success of Brave Robot ice cream had proved that the concept has legs, with some highly engaged consumers proactively buying into the animal-free concept, and others just enjoying the taste and attracted by the brand.
“The acceleration of this project came because one of the major retailers asked us to and we’ve had great retailer feedback."
Ingredients (strawberry): Animal-free cream (water, coconut oil, non-animal whey protein), strawberries, sugar, non-gmo modified potato starch, non-gmo modified corn starch, contains 2% or less of: cultures, salt, potato protein, rowanberry fruit extract (antioxidant), lactic acid, natural flavor.
Contains: Milk Protein.
‘There’s a huge part of the population that just wants to make better choices [for animals and the planet]’
As for Brave Robot ice cream, he said, there are several key purchase drivers for the brand, which is available in several thousand stores and generating encouraging velocities.
At base, any brand – whether plant-based, or featuring ‘animal-‘free’ dairy – has to meet the price, taste, convenience bars, he said, but there are
“What we’ve seen with Brave Robot, is that people buy it again and again because of taste, and they like the fact that it’s lactose-free, which wasn’t really top of mind when we launched the product.”
As for other purchase drivers, he said, “There's certainly a very engaged community following the food tech trends, but what we've seen is that there’s a huge part of the population that just wants to make better choices [for animals and the planet], but doesn’t want to compromise on the taste and the experience [you get from animal products].”
Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to consumers, even if it is not yet a primary purchase driver, he said, and when new lifecycle assessment data comes back, this will likely be communicated on the next iteration of the packaging so that consumers can see Modern Kitchen products have a dramatically lower environmental footprint than their animal-based counterparts.
Nutrition: ‘We're not trying to be a healthier alternative’
While some meat and dairy alternatives position themselves as healthier options, Modern Kitchen is not especially focused on making nutritional comparisons with regular dairy cream cheese, he said (the Modern Kitchen website features the following call outs: Animal Free, Lactose Free, Vegan-Friendly, Gluten Free, Sustainable, and Soy Free).
The product – which contains some coconut oil - has the same level of saturated fat as Philadelphia cream cheese for example, although slightly fewer calories.
“In the flavored products, we've got less sugar than typical cream cheeses, but we're not trying to be a healthier alternative.”
Brave Robot animal-free ice cream: ‘We've been blown away by our success this year’
Animal-free ice cream Brave Robot “had a great summer,” said Kollesoff, who said more products under the Brave Robot brand are launching soon.
“We’re on fire. In some retailers we’re the #1 driver of category growth, we've been blown away by our success this year. We're aggressively going after new accounts to close the whitespace, so we've got some tremendous results in the Northeast and on the west coast but there's a lot of whitespace inbetween. Frozen resets are typically only once a year, so our store counts haven’t necessarily changed much from where they were in March, but I would expect distribution will increase significantly next year.”
Going forward, he said, there are plenty of categories that The Urgent Company could potentially move into under the Modern Kitchen, Brave Robot, or other brands.
“Whey protein is used in everything from sports nutrition to frozen foods, baked goods and infant formula, but we’re not just limited to animal-free whey protein. We’re looking at more sustainable foods that consumers will love.”
In mid-2020, Perfect Day acquired SBF, Inc., a bioprocess scale-up facility in Logan, Utah (Utah State University’s Synthetic Biomanufacturing Facility), and intends to expand its offerings into 'enterprise biology,' providing technology development services for other companies, said co-founder Perumal Gandhi.
"We first got into the ingredient business because food companies, big and small, were eager to work with the ingredients we had successfully scaled. Today, something analogous is happening on the technology side. There are innovators all over the world with ideas and ambitions similar to our animal-free milk protein, but need help getting there."
The Berkeley-based company - which says it has "an eye toward eventual strong public market performance "– has bolstered its executive team over the past quarter with the following high-profile hires:
- TM Narayan, Chief of Business Operations, joins from HCL Technologies
- Allison Fowler, Chief Marketing Officer, joins from Perfect Snacks
- Alex Brittain, Senior Vice President, International, joins from PepsiCo
- Chuck Thorn, Vice President, Finance, joins from Cargill
Interested in dairy alternatives and 'animal-free' cheese?
Checkout part two (Oct 20) of FoodNavigator-USA's FREE 3-part broadcast series, Disrupting the meat and dairy case: from plant-based bacon to 'real' cheese (minus the cows), featuring:
- Takoua Debeche, chief research & innovation officer, Danone North America
- Matias Muchnick, CEO and founder, NotCo
- David Bucca, founder and CEO, Change Foods
- Nathaniel Benchemhoun, VP Business Development, BioMilk
- Carole Bingley, technical specialist, RSSL
- Jessica Knutzon, senior marketing manager, Americas, CP Kelco