Precision fermentation: Future of dairy or busted flush?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: General Mills
Image: General Mills

Related tags Dairy precision fermentation

There was a notable failure in the US for ‘one of the world’s first next generation cheese alternatives’. But that shouldn’t detract from the potential benefits that precision fermentation technology can bring to the dairy alternatives category, FoodNavigator’s Protein Vision event heard.

The benefits of precision-derived dairy alternatives are ‘obvious’, said Floor Buitelaar, Managing Partner and co-founder at Bright Green Partners, a global alternative protein consulting firm.

Precision fermentation, which uses microorganisms to produce specific functional ingredients, is a proven technology, she stressed, and has long been the primary production method for EU-improved ingredients such as rennet.

The process has the potential to reduce environmental impact, address untapped consumer needs (notably in terms of health), increase supply chain resilience, and reduce costs. All the while, the ingredients brewed by precision fermentation are identical to those found in cow's milk, so the end product has the same taste and texture.

“We are just at the start of this novel technology and many more products will come to market in the coming years,”​ Buitelaar said.

Most alternative protein precision fermentation companies on the market work on dairy applications such as cow-free cheese, milk and ice cream.

These companies are not based in Europe, however, and groups like Food Fermentation Europe claim the regulatory process for Novel Foods is the greatest challenge facing precision fermentation-derived products and ingredients.

There are other challenges for this industry, however. “There’s very little production capacity available specifically for precision fermentation available globally,”​ said Buitelaar.

“It is CAPEX heavy and high risk because it is not fully proven technology yet. Investors are not very interested in investing in huge sums into CAPEX immediately because they first want to have a proven concept, and to get a proven concept you have to have production capacity available. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation.”

These challenges culminated in the demise of Bold Cultr, the animal-free cream cheese brand developed by General Mills in the US.

The cream cheese, which was lactose-free and made with proteins created through precision fermentation, was first launched in November 2021 and was touted as ‘one of the world’s first next generation cheese alternatives’.

In January 2023, GM told reporters it planned to expand the availability of Bold Cultr products both in food retail and via the brand’s e-commerce platform. But the brand’s subsequent abrupt closure left more questions than answers over the future of animal-free dairy as part of the food major’s portfolio.

GM was tight-lipped about the closure, simply saying it was ‘de-prioritize funding’ for the project.

Consumers are ready for these animal-free dairy products, insisted Buitelaar. “Consumers generally are very open to alternatives to dairy,” ​she said.

Collaborations can ‘de-risk’ precision fermentation dairy

But greater collaboration is needed to accelerate approval in Europe and communicate the benefits to consumers, said Will van den Tweel, Project Director Those Vegan Cowboys, which employs precision fermentation to make caseins for animal-free cheese production and which must satisfy regulatory requirements before it can be distributed for sale and consumption in the EU.

“By helping each other we can likely implement and commercialize quicker and better. Precision fermentation is already very relevant for milk ingredients and dairy products. Dairy proteins like beta-lactoglobulin and caseins are commodities. Consequently, questions emerge like: can we reach the required cost of goods sold level? Enormous investments are required for many expensive and dedicated plants. Collaborations all over can help to de-risk this.”

Many ‘classical’ dairy companies are also interested in the area, he added.

For example, Bel Group, which makes Babybel, The Laughing Cow and Boursin, has acquired an equity share in Standing Ovation, a Paris-based food tech company making animal-free casein via precision fermentation. Fonterra and Royal DSM are also collaborating to accelerate the development and commercialisation of precision fermentation-derived proteins with dairy-like properties. In addition, FrieslandCampina Ingredients has been using precision fermentation since 2016 to produce human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs).

These are all ‘good signs’, said van den Tweel. “We will need to build collaborations with existing large players. We also need to involve the farmers in this transition. As before they will be crucial to supply feedstocks for new dairy products.”

Informing both consumers and regulators will also be very relevant, he stressed. “We and several precision fermentation companies have set up an alliance, Food Fermentation Europe, similar to what is existing in the US. It’s about communication and lobbying. We now even see that a large dairy company approached FFE whether it could become a member. Change is happening.”

Visit HERE​ to watch FoodNavigator’s Protein Vision 2023 event on demand  

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