Fake Food Friday: Precision Fermentation

I’m going to start my Fake Food or Fine Food Fridays with a focus on the newest food products: lab-made foods.

There are new brands of ice cream, cream cheese, and milks appearing on the market that claim to be both real cow milk, yet “animal-free.” Hard cheeses and precision-fermented meats 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. 3

Precision fermentation typically uses genetically engineered microorganisms – usually yeast, algae, or bacteria. These microorganisms are programmed through gene editing to produce and excrete metabolic byproducts that are different than what they would produce naturally. 1

The microbe most commonly used in precision fermentation is E. coli. The genetic modification of E. coli is being used to create “animal-free” whey the 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. 2

  1. The first is that the re-programming of E. coli 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. Second, there has been no long-term testing on the health effects of the primary metabolite (in this case, the “animal-free” whey). 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!
  3. The bio-waste from precision fermentation has to be “deactivated” and disposed of properly because it has been deemed unsafe to be disposed of in landfills. Contrast this to traditional fermentation in which byproducts are healthy and can be eaten by animals, including humans.
  4. How much of this toxic waste is produced in relation to the desired food product?
  5. 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.
  6. Is it really more planet-friendly? Forbes magazine asks, “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. 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?” Also, “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?”
  7. Is it safe? The Forbes article 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

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

Available now:

  • (2020) Perfect Day – producers of “animal-free” whey used in these product:
    • (2020) Brave Robot ice cream (Urgent Co.) – on store shelves at Kroger, Ralphs, Gelson’s, 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 (Perfect Day)(online only)
    • (2022) Bored Cow (Tomorrow Farms) – chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry milk (online only)
    • Remilk – animal-free milk
    • 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, https://perfectday.com/newsroom/precision-fermentation-alliance/)
    • Change Foods – animal-free cheese
    • The EVERY Co. – animal-free egg protein
    • Helaina – (mom-free?) breast milk infant formula
      • Competitors: Biomilq, others
    • Imagindairy –
    • 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?


  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/errolschweizer/2022/03/02/what-should-consumers-be-asking-about-precision-fermentation/?sh=581525de27b0
  2. https://childrenshealthdefense.org/defender/fake-meat-global-control-cola/
  3. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2018/11/02/cheese-gmo-food-die-hard-gmo-opponents-love-and-oppose-a-label-for/

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