For National Dairy Month in June, farmers and industry organizations promoted the nutritional values of milk products, spearheaded cow-centric social media campaigns and organized community events to celebrate dairy.
The Non-GMO Project took a different take, using the occasion to call out dairy made by precision fermentation — which it called “synbio dairy,” borrowing the term for the process used by the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. The certification and advocacy group says that there are a lot of big unknowns about the methods and processes of precision fermentation dairy manufacturing. Dairy made in this way is potentially harmful to consumers and the environment, and is an existential threat to small, non-GMO dairy farms, the group said.
At a media webinar in mid-June, Non-GMO Project Executive Director Megan Westgate spoke out against dairy products made through synbio technology, or precision fermentation, which are beginning to filter into grocery stores, bakeries and foodservice. She and others at the webinar said that manufacturers of these products are not transparent about the fact that these ingredients are only possible through genetic modification. Products containing them also don’t always have obvious on-pack labeling information that explains how they were made or any risks around consuming them.
The food items that come from newer methods of fermentation are regulated like any other food ingredient. They do not have to undergo more specific regulatory processes.
“Companies are continuing to manufacture and release these new GMO products into the public, again, without labeling or regulation,” Westgate said. “We're tracking all of this because customers demand transparency in the food system.”
The same day the webinar was held, one of the biggest product announcements to date using precision fermentation ingredients was made. Perfect Day announced a partnership with Mars to create a milk chocolate bar using fermented dairy proteins. Other products that use Perfect Day’s fermented dairy proteins have been on the market since 2020. Recent grocery launches include three brands of milk, ice cream, cream cheese and whey protein powder.
Nicki Briggs, Perfect Day’s vice president of corporate communications, said in an email that Perfect Day has nothing to hide and works to provide consumers with information.
“We are committed to transparency and view education as a continuous, ongoing process for us,” she wrote. “We are constantly adding new resources to our website to dive deep on our technology, impact, and growth and engaging across audiences and channels and offer a robust suite of information regarding each step of our process.”
Is this a GMO?
Precision fermentation essentially uses biotechnology to reengineer common microbes, like yeast, to produce a protein or substance that is identical to those generally found in places like eggs, dairy or sweeteners when fermented. The Good Food Institute describes precision fermentation as a way to make microbes behave as “cell factories” that make a large quantity of something new.
When GMOs first entered consumer consciousness in the United States, most of them were not made in this way. The vast majority of GMO products and ingredients are directly made from crops that have had their DNA modified to do things like resist pests, improve yields and flourish with hotter temperatures or less water.
Before Perfect Day’s products were available, the only common food ingredient made through precision fermentation was rennet, a vital enzyme used in cheesemaking. Precision fermentation-made rennet, which is an enzyme that naturally occurs in calves’ stomachs, was approved by the FDA in 1990.
“Companies are continuing to manufacture and release these new GMO products into the public, again, without labeling or regulation. We're tracking all of this because customers demand transparency in the food system.”
Executive director, Non-GMO Project
While GMO labeling is currently required for all CPG products in the United States, the federal government’s standards are less stringent than the Non-GMO Project’s own certification standard. Under federal law, products with detectable bioengineered DNA need to have a label informing consumers of the ingredient, while products made with extremely processed bioengineered ingredients with no detectable DNA — including sugar or soy — do not have to disclose anything. And food ingredients made through precision fermentation have no detectable modified DNA, so they also are not required to make a disclosure. However, under federal regulations, manufacturers of food products that have any ingredients that are made through bioengineering can voluntarily put that on labels.
In order to receive a Non-GMO Project Verified certification, there is a stringent approval process. For its certification, the organization emphasizes the origin of all ingredients, no matter how processed they are.
Linda Cognato, research analyst for the Non-GMO Project, said in the webinar that there are claims being made that precision fermentation dairy is non-GMO. Hans Eisenbeis, the Non-GMO Project’s director of mission and messaging, said in an interview after the webinar that he’s heard “soft claims” to this effect. But, he said, none of them have come from the product manufacturers or Perfect Day. However, he said that using a softer-sounding term like “precision fermentation” can be misleading to make the product seem like it is completely safe.
“The simple fact that there isn't detectable genetically modified material in the end product is an act of some subversion — I suppose, unintentional subversion,” Eisenbeis said. “It is a bioengineered food. ...If you're proud of the technology, then just call it what it is, and what most people would recognize.”
Briggs said in an email that Perfect Day would never add a non-GMO label claim to any of its products. Since Perfect Day is only an ingredient manufacturer, labeling decisions — including whether to voluntary disclose bioengineered ingredients — are solely made by those who make the products. The company would discuss any potential voluntary disclosure with a manufacturing partner, she said.
Companies that use synthetic biology to create proteins normally made by animals prefer to call their products “animal-free.” They say this communicates that their products are not made by animals, but identical — so anyone with a dairy allergy, for example, would know not to consume precision-fermented milk.
Perfect Day is the farthest along in terms of creating a product and commercializing it, but others are close behind. In the realm of dairy, precision fermented-made proteins from Israel-based Remilk just received generally recognized as safe status from the FDA, and the company is building what it says is the world’s largest facility for cow-free milk in Denmark.
The Every Company, which uses precision fermentation to make egg proteins, has begun slowly rolling them out in smoothies and macarons. CEO Arturo Elizondo said the company is soon moving into three new manufacturing sites and will quintuple its capacity — meaning more products will be launched soon.
Part of the reason that the Non-GMO Project says consumers need to know more about “synbio dairy” is because there is so much that is not known about it.
These products are often claimed to be more sustainable, better for health, vegan or kosher, Cognato said. Whether those claims hold up is something else. And there is little that can be independently found out, said Alan Lewis, head of government affairs and agriculture policy for Natural Grocers, during the Non-GMO Project webinar. Very few companies in this space right now are publicly traded, which limits disclosure of details around their technology and business. Patent applications can show some information, but not enough to get a larger sense of exactly what a company is doing.
“The simple fact that there isn't detectable genetically modified material in the end product is an act of some subversion — I suppose, unintentional subversion. It is a bioengineered food. ...If you're proud of the technology, then just call it what it is, and what most people would recognize.”
Director of mission and messaging, Non-GMO Project
What’s dangerously not clear, Lewis said, is how the process alters the genetic makeup of all of the organisms and proteins involved, as well as what really goes in and comes out of the system. Genetic modifications of the yeasts may be intended to help speed the fermentation, but could end with the system producing a pathogen or contaminant, he said.
Briggs from Perfect Day said this concern is unfounded. Perfect Day’s production system is closed, she said, meaning it is difficult for anything else to get in. The company also has an extensive quality control and filtration system, so nothing but whey protein comes out.
Meanwhile, Lewis said that while language on Perfect Day’s website sounds nice — talking about “animal-free protein from flora that makes their proteins kinder and greener, while leaving the earth’s resources alone,” he read — it doesn’t take into account many possible negatives. One is the company’s potential dependence on the petrochemical GMO industrial agricultural movement — which Eisenbeis explained could be responsible for the grains, sugars and other inputs for Perfect Day’s manufacturing process. Lewis said there are also potentially toxic wastes produced through the process, as well as unwanted materials produced that cannot always be completely filtered out.
“What are those novel proteins, prions and organisms in that product?” Lewis said. “We need to ask these manufacturers and ask for the science. And if they haven’t done the science, then they need to press the pause button and do it.”
Briggs said that the inputs for the company’s fermentation are simple carbohydrates that come from any starch — including corn, beets, sugarcane and rice — and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Those inputs are subject to the same rules for pesticides and other substances as any other food items.
And, she said, there is nothing to fear from the process. The “waste” is actually a valuable product that can be used for pet food, fertilizer or pharmaceuticals, according to the company’s life cycle assessment. And the modified yeast is also not a hazard, she said.
In the “incredibly unlikely chance” that Perfect Day’s microflora escaped into the environment, they “would quickly die” because “they’re not engineered to survive in the wild,” Briggs wrote. “In the even more impossible chance they survived, they would not be a danger to other species as they are both harmless and unable to reproduce outside of our process.”
Aside from technological questions, participants in the webinar also wondered about the impact of these new proteins on the larger market. Would proteins made through precision fermentation be available to all? And who will they actually benefit?
Albert Straus, the founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery in California, said on the webinar that this kind of dairy is targeting businesses like his. Straus Family Creamery’s products are Non-GMO Project Verified, and his dairy farm is certified organic. Straus has eco-friendly initiatives at his farms, including regenerative farming where animal waste is used both as compost and fertilizer, and as a way to power the farm. By the end of next year, Straus said, he hopes to have a lower or equal carbon footprint as any plant-based alternative.
Straus’ products target the high-end eco-conscious consumer who cares about where products came from and their greater impacts on the environment.
Straus said his business is trying to create an economically viable farming system, “and when you have competition that is talking about projecting that dairy is not good for you, not good for the planet, it creates this adversarial relationship in the marketplace and in the public that is not healthy, and it's very damaging to farmers who do their best to produce high quality food that is environmentally beneficial,” he said. “So the technology itself, I feel that it’s not really equal to the quality. It’s not from the earth, it's not natural.”
Because the price point for precision fermentation-created dairy products is higher, Straus said they are taking shelf space away from premium products made by organic producers like him. Eisenbeis with the Non-GMO Project predicted that as these companies become more successful, they are going to first be putting organic and non-GMO dairy providers out of business. Mainstream dairy consumers, he said, are only looking for the products that are the least expensive, and milk made by precision fermentation is not at that price point yet.
Briggs said Perfect Day doesn’t see it this way.
“Anyone who shares our mission of a kinder, greener tomorrow we view as a collaborator, not a target,” she wrote. “We are working towards a world where we exist alongside and, ideally, in partnership with earth-friendly dairy operations.”
“We are committed to transparency and view education as a continuous, ongoing process for us.”
Vice president of communications, Perfect Day
Non-GMO Project’s Eisenbeis and Perfect Day representatives said they haven’t ever spoken to discuss their differences — or their common goal of reducing less-humane and pollution-heavy dairy operations.
Eisenbeis said the purpose of the Non-GMO Project’s June focus on dairy made through precision fermentation is solely for consumer education. People who are concerned about GMOs may not know that a new type of genetically modified food is coming to stores, and it may be present in all sorts of products.
“At the end of the day, that's what this campaign is really about: educating, starting a conversation, hopefully driving a bit more transparency in that part of the industry and not sweeping those deeper conversations under a sort of rug of marketing and sustainability claims,” he said.