Cracking the cheese code – the potential of precision fermentation
21 June 2021
Cellular agriculture enables the production of real dairy proteins through precision fermentation, thus removing animals from the production process. In this insightful interview, Raffael Wohlgensinger, CEO and co-founder of Formo, talks to ProVeg about their work on bringing the next generation of sustainable, healthy, and equitable dairy products to consumers.
Formo, formerly known as LegenDairy Foods and a ProVeg Incubator alumnus, is a European player in the precision-fermentation space, focusing on animal-free dairy products. Formo uses microorganisms instead of cows to produce their milk proteins.
To produce animal-free milk proteins, the respective genetic information is introduced into a culture of microorganisms, such as fungi or yeast. This culture is then grown in controlled fermentation tanks until sufficient proteins have been produced. The proteins are then harvested by separating them from the microorganisms. The resulting cultured-milk proteins are identical to conventionally produced animal proteins and can be used to manufacture a wide range of delicious dairy products.
What kind of proteins do you use and how do you produce them? Why did you choose to produce these specific proteins?
We make animal-free milk proteins using the precision-fermentation process. We chose to produce these specific proteins because they are the core components that give cheese and other dairy products their unique functional properties. Consequently, we can cover the full range of delicious, hedonistic cheese experiences (taste, structure, meltability, stretchability, etc.) without compromise. The main difference between our cheese and cheese that is currently sold in the supermarket is that we do not use any animals in the process.
What dairy products do you have in the pipeline?
We identified cheese alternatives as the most pressing consumer pain-point in the plant-based sector. Consumer research shows that plant-based cheeses significantly underperform in comparison to plant-based milk or yogurt in the overall plant-based-dairy category. Because plant-based proteins do not have the same functionality as milk proteins, we see our biggest potential for positive impact in creating real, delicious cheese without using animals.
Moreover, the high functionality of our milk proteins enables us to cover the full range of cheese experiences, from fresh cheeses such as ricotta to aged and ripened cheeses such as Gruyère. We have a deeply rooted respect for the European cheese tradition, and we see the biggest potential of our technology in enriching the cheese categories by removing the downsides and maximising the upsides of cheese production.
To what extent do you expect your products to be healthier than their conventional counterparts?
Our products will be free from antibiotics, hormones (estrogen, cholesterol, etc.), pus, and other negative byproducts of intensive animal farming. Moreover, our products will be 100% lactose-free, making them very allergen friendly. Lastly, we turn the production logic upside down, starting with the protein instead of the milk. By controlling the ingredients throughout the entire production process, we are able to fully personalise any dairy product. For example, we can add nutrients or functional ingredients to our products in order to boost consumer health.
How will you label your products?
With our product, we are creating a new way to produce food that we know and love. As such, we have both the responsibility to create a brand that consumers recognise and identify with, as well as to educate consumers about our technology and the benefits for the environment, animal welfare, and human health. At the moment, for example, we are working on establishing a consistent nomenclature for precision-fermentation products. Our goal is to make our process as transparent as possible for consumers, and consistent terminology is the first step towards achieving this goal.
As far as we know, there is no consumer study yet on the acceptance of cultured dairy products. Do you expect European consumers to accept your products?
We recently conducted the first-ever consumer acceptance study of attitudes towards animal-free dairy products, in collaboration with Chris Bryant from the University of Bath. Our results show that consumers understand our technology and want to try our products. For this study, we surveyed more than 5,000 people from five countries (including Germany and the UK). Our consumer study is currently in the peer-review process, but, to our mind, the most important takeaway is that more than 70% of survey participants responded that they are willing to buy our products.
How/when are you planning to apply for regulatory approval?
We are planning to sell our first products by 2023. Obviously, regulatory approval is a top-of-mind priority for us.
What are the challenges to bring your products to market?
- Naming: there have been previous pushes by lobbyists to ban the use of dairy terminology for plant-based alternatives. However, our products do not fall under the plant-based category – our proteins are bioidentical to animal-based milk proteins. Thus, our product is not like cheese, it is cheese. We are therefore hoping that regulators will allow us to call our product what it actually is!
- Novel Foods Application: in the best-case scenario, the approval process in the EU takes at least 18 months. We are confident that our products will be approved. However, the uncertainty of this process and the lengthy duration poses some challenges in terms of planning.
- Scaling: taking our small-scale production to an industrial scale in order to bring down the price of our products.
The ongoing pandemic has shown the importance of food-systems transformation on multiple levels. To what extent can your production processes help mitigate the various risks posed by a food system that is strongly reliant on animal agriculture?
The current global pandemic has shown how animal-centric supply chains are not only unstable but are potentially key contributors to supply-chain disruptions due to the risk of zoonotic disease outbreaks. Therefore, we see our technology as a solution to many supply-chain risks around food security. For instance, dairy products made with precision fermentation allow for more decentralised production. This means that we can minimise supply-chain risks, especially for countries which are very dependent on imports.
Today, other companies are tapping into precision fermentation in order to produce a variety of dairy products. Perfect Day in the US, ReMilk and BioMilk in Israel, Those Vegan Cowboys in Belgium, and Better Dairy in the UK are all developing a new generation of dairy products that are delicious, sustainable, and affordable. Additionally, this field presents highly lucrative opportunities. Thus far, the majority of funding in the cellular-agriculture space has gone to precision-fermentation startups. This isn’t too surprising since the production processes are similar to the processes that have been used in the food industry for many years to produce enzymes such as rennet (a key ingredient to produce cheese) and vanillin (the main component of vanilla flavour), which helps to minimise the scientific and regulatory challenges.