Monday, March 13, 2023

Lab-grown dairy products might be tasty and resolve some environmental concerns, but their success is not certain

A child pours Cowabunga brand 'animal-free dairy beverage' made
with Perfect Day enzymes. (Photo: Carolyn Fong, The Washington Post)
A reporter's lunch line-up: "Celery root soup lush with whole milk, spice cake topped with maple cream cheese frosting and ice cream, and then a latte with its fat cap of glossy foam. In all, a delicious lunch. Maybe a little heavy on the dairy," writes Laura Reiley of The Wasington Post. "Only this dairy was different. It was not the product of a cow or soybean or nut. The main ingredient of this milk was made by microbes in a lab, turned into tasty and recognizable food, and then served to a hungry reporter."

How is that possible? "Single-celled yeasts are doing the work of 1,500-pound cows . . . Lab-grown meat is coming, but lab-grown dairy has already arrived. . . . Dozens of companies have sprouted up to develop milk proteins made by yeasts or fungi, including Perfect Day, a California-based dairy company. The companies’ products are already on store shelves in the form of yogurt, cheese and ice cream, often labeled 'animal-free.' The burgeoning industry, which calls itself 'precision fermentation,' has its own trade organization, and big-name food manufacturers such as NestlĂ©, Starbucks and General Mills have signed on as customers."

Precision dairy began with an unsavory breakfast. Reiley reports, "For Ryan Pandya, chief executive of Perfect Day, it really started as a bagel problem. Pandya told Reiley, “I had a bagel with vegan cream cheese that was so bad that it led me to investigate. . . . A lot of dairy alternatives are not made of food.” Reiley notes, "He hit upon a process called precision fermentation, similar to what has been used for decades to brew beer, make insulin for diabetic patients or produce rennet for cheese. . . . Beyond the fermentation process, making usable milk proteins is similar to that at regular cow dairies."

Precision dairy has several benefits. It does not contain cholesterol and does not involve cattle, which are "said to be the No. 1 agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide," Reiley writes. "Consumers concerned about climate change or animal welfare have been anticipating the U.S. launch of cultivated meat. . . . but cultivated dairy could have just as much of an impact on the environment — with fewer regulatory hurdles to clear."

Cow and plant dairy are already battling for market share, and adding precision dairy will intensify the competition. "Traditional cow dairy has pushed back against plant-based milks using words like 'milk' or 'cheese' in a series of largely unsuccessful lawsuits," Reiley reports. "The Food and Drug Administration said that oat, soy and almond drinks can keep the word 'milk' in their names, but squabbles around precise language will likely recur when more of these precision dairy products reach the market. . . . Plant-based milk companies also may not welcome the competition, especially if cultivated dairy products are positioned as more sustainable and less resource-intensive."

Precision dairy has obstacles. "The industry is also likely to run up against Americans’ increasing discomfort with processed food," Reiley writes. "Recent declines in plant-based meat sales are a cautionary tale. And the regulatory path ahead is not assured for this fledgling industry."

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