Food or Fraud? Precision Fermentation and “Animal-free” Dairy – Part 1

I’ll start my Fake Food or Fine Food series with a focus on “animal-free” dairy. I just started learning about this a couple of months ago and trying to keep up with all the changes. If you have anything to add, I’m happy to learn from all of you!

There are new brands of ice cream, cream cheese, and milks already on grocery store shelves that claim to be both real cow milk, yet “animal-free.” Hard cheeses are on their way soon as well.

Precision fermentation is a form of “synthetic biology” technology. It has been used for several decades in the pharmaceutical industry. In 1982, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the medical use of insulin produced by Genentech’s genetically modified microbes. In 1990, the FDA approved Pfizer’s GMO-derived chymosin (a genetically-modified form of microbial rennet used to make cheese) for human consumption. Of course it’s not required to be labeled and is considered non-GMO by U.S. food industry standards. 3

This may be news to you. It was to me! I just learned this while working on this article. So how can you avoid GMO chymosin in your cheese? Choose organic cheese or cheese with the Non-GMO Project label. The Non-GMO Project, unlike the U.S. food industry, does consider this type of chymosin, known as FPC, a genetically-modified ingredient. 3 Famous French cheeses withe the AOC label (Appelation d’Origine Côntrolée) follow traditional methods of cheese production, including the use of animal rennet.6, 7 I’ll write more about the GMO rennet issue in a future blog.

Precision fermentation typically uses genetically engineered microorganisms – usually yeast, algae, or bacteria. These microorganisms are programmed through gene editing to produce and excrete metabolic by-products that are different than what they would produce naturally. 1 While once only used for insulin and enzymes, the new frontier of precision fermentation seeks to feed the world while saving the planet and being kind to animals.

The bacteria most commonly used in precision fermentation is E. coli. Bacteria, yeast, or microbes are cultivated in pharma-style stainless steel fermentation tanks. It’s very easy to contaminate the cultures. 2 The genetic modification of yeasts or E. coli is being used to create “animal-free” whey that is then processed into “animal-free” dairy products such as ice cream, cream cheese, and flavored milks. While this sounds magical and good for the planet, there are some potentially hazardous problems.

This new technology raises many questions, which apply equally to precision fermentation that uses yeast or bacteria:

  • The first is that the re-programming of the yeast or microbe causes it to produce other metabolites than just the “animal-free” whey. No one is checking what these other metabolites are, let alone testing their health effects. 2

    A related question is that while companies claim that the end product is separated from the total fermentation output of the organisms, how do we know there was no contamination with other, unknown by-products of the metabolic re-programming of the yeast or bacteria? What are the health effects of these other by-products that could potentially end up in the finished product that winds up on supermarket shelves?

  • Second, there has been no long-term testing on the health effects of the primary metabolite (in this case, the “animal-free” whey or casein). 2

    In fact, when food journalists and others are invited by these synthetic food startups to taste their product, they are required to sign a legal waiver which states that the health effects of these “foods” are unknown!

    Food journalist Larissa Zimberoff tell us on her Substack from November 18, 2022: “When I’ve visited startups to taste their cultured meat, I’m required to sign a waiver releasing them of any responsibility. These novel foods have existed for such a short time. Do we know enough to let them into our supply chain, our supermarkets, our diet? I’ll let you answer that one for yourself.” 4

  • The bio-waste from precision fermentation has to be “deactivated” and disposed of properly – usually by incineration – because it has been deemed unsafe to be disposed of in landfills. This is completely different from traditional fermentation in which byproducts are healthy and can be eaten by animals, including humans. 1,2

  • How much of this toxic waste is produced in relation to the desired food product?

    An insightful Forbes magazine article asks, “How much waste material is produced by such microorganisms relative to sellable product? This includes metabolic wastes, as well as the leftover steep once the spent microbes and consumable material have been filtered out. How will such wastes be disposed of and who is ultimately responsible for it?” 1

  • What cell culture medium is used? The microorganisms need to eat so they can grow and produce the end product. The cell culture medium (the nutrient bath the microorganisms live in) is often derived from corn or soy, typically genetically modified to withstand high doses of herbicides.
  • Is it really more planet-friendly? There is already a huge infrastructure investment in this technology because it is so expensive. 2

    More smart questions from the Forbes article: “How does the energy and resource usage of such products compare to competing animal-based items? Much of the marketing and fundraising for such products revolves around being significantly less harmful to the climate than CAFOs [confined animal feeding operations]. Precision fermentation requires large investments in concrete, steel, plastic and fossil-fuel dependent electric utilities to maintain the particular environmental settings necessary for the microorganisms to thrive. If the sector wishes to have a significant impact on consumption, they will require the buildout of thousands of fermentation tanks and dozens, if not hundreds of facilities. How will this resource use impact communities already dealing with the environmental racism and colonialism inherent in mining, tech manufacturing and waste disposal?” 1

  • Is it safe? Forbes once again poses urgent questions:“

    What kind of testing has been done to understand the potential environmental impact for if and/or when the microbes escape the confines of a fermentation plant, particularly as the technology scales? Can they survive and interact in the variable conditions and ecosystems that exist in the wild? Since some of these organisms are derived from strains that can live and thrive well outdoors, what are the environmental risks? CAFOs have long been linked to the spread of pathogens and pandemics, so will precision fermentation reduce these risks or create new ones?” 1

    This last issue can have potentially dire implications that have been unexamined by this new industry. This issue has been explored by the Institute for Responsible Technology. Their conclusion? That the dangers of gene-edited, lab-grown foods have the terrifying potential to ruin not just our health, but all life on Earth. Once you watch their short film, Gene Out of the Bottle, this will not sound like a crazy idea.
From Roz Chast in The New Yorker.
(Sadly, this is no crazier than reality!)

Some of the companies that now have or will soon have “animal-free” dairy products on the market include:

  • Available now:
  • Perfect Day – producers of “animal-free” whey used in the following products:
    • (2020) Brave Robot ice cream (Urgent Co.) – on store shelves at Kroger, Ralphs, Gelson’s, and others
    • (2020) Perfect Indulgence ice cream (Graeter’s)(midwest US)
    • (2020) N’ice Cream (Smitten Ice Cream)(Bay Area, CA)
    • (2021) Modern Kitchen cream cheese (Urgent Co.)(East coast US, Berkeley, CA)
    • (2021) California Performance Co. whey protein powders (online only)
    • (2022) Bored Cow (Tomorrow Farms) – chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry milk (online)
      • (Apr. 2023) Introduced at Sprouts Farmers Markets nationwide
  • Remilk – animal-free milk
    • (Jan. 2023) Bold Cultr cream cheese (General Mills)
      • on shelves now at select Hy-Vee grocery store locations in Minnesota

  • In development:
  • Other companies (Precision Fermentation Alliance)
    • Change Foods – animal-free cheese
    • The EVERY Co. – animal-free egg protein
    • Helaina – (mom-free?) breast milk infant formula
    • Biomilq (funded by Bill Gates) – more “mom-free” human breast “milk”
    • Imagindairy – whey and casein proteins used to make animal-free milk and dairy products
      • May 1, 2023: French dairy giant Danone has made a strategic investment into Israeli startup Imagindairy Ltd.. which could pave the way to joint collaboration on developing animal-free dairy products for consumers using precision fermentation technology. 5
    • Motif FoodWorks – meal alternatives
      • Available late 2023: Motif BeefWorks, Motif ChickenWorks, Motif PorkWorks
    • New Culture – cheese made with animal-free casein
    • Onego Bio – animal-free egg white

For me, there are too many unanswered questions about the health effects of this new food technology to feel comfortable in eating it.

What do you think?


P.S. This article was written by me without the help of AI.


  2. (presentation by Joseph Mercola, DO in Session 1: The Fake ‘Food as Medicine’ Agenda & Synthetic Foods)

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