As Investors Bet on 'Milk Without Cows,' Questions About Transparency Loom | Civil Eats

As Investors Bet on ‘Milk Without Cows,’ Questions About Transparency Loom

Perfect Day and other companies making milk with precision fermentation promise animal-free, lower-carbon products through technology. They may also benefit from a lack of consumer understanding about the science.

Young woman reads food label on a bottle of non-dairy milk from Perfect Day while shopping for healthy groceries

When Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi stopped eating dairy around a decade ago, they found themselves at a loss to try to replace the creamy consistency associated with the milk and cheese they had grown up eating. In the ensuing years, the pair founded a startup called Muufri—which has since been renamed Perfect Day—dedicated to creating “dairy without the cows.”

“They would open their fridge and it was stacked with all of these plant-based options that were fine, right?” Nikki Briggs, Perfect Day’s vice president of corporate communications, told the local publication Berkeleyside last year. “But it just wasn’t the same thing as stretchy cheese on pizza, or silky yogurt, or creamy ice cream.”

The answer, Pandya and Ghandi decided, was to replicate the protein found in whey using precision fermentation to make products that are strikingly similar to “the real thing.”

And, by many accounts, that plan seems to be going well for the company. Perfect Day provides its whey protein to existing food company “partners”—such as Graeter’s ice cream and General Mills, which uses it in its animal-free Bold Cultr cream cheese. The company also has its own consumer packaged goods (CPG) arm, called The Urgent Company, which has so far unveiled both an ice cream brand (Brave Robot) and a cream cheese brand (Modern Kitchen). Over the course of the last two years, Perfect Day has accumulated $750 million in funding. In November, it revealed a potential partnership with Starbucks and then, in December, The Urgent Company acquired the ice cream brand Coolhaus.

Ryan Pandya (left) and Perumal Gandhi with Perfect Day products. (Photo courtesy of Perfect Day)

Ryan Pandya (left) and Perumal Gandhi with Perfect Day products. (Photo courtesy of Perfect Day)

Although Perfect Day—which received its first $2 million investment in 2014—has been a kind of pioneer in the space, it’s now one of a handful of companies making lab-produced milk. Competitors like Imaginedairy and RealDeal Milk all appear to be using a similar fermentation process. According to a 2020 report from the trade group the Good Food Institute, three quarters of precision fermentation companies are working on dairy. That may be because meat produced through cellular agriculture may ultimately be too costly to make it worth doing at scale. Or it may be that lots of consumers dream of a way around the pitfalls of dairy, but can’t break the habit.

Either way, “there is a real revolution going on here,” Jim Mellon, a biotech investor and the author of Moo’s Law: An investor’s Guide to the New Agrarian Revolution, said about the trend when speaking to New Scientist last August.

And yet while these “animal-free” dairy brands are promising lower-carbon, kinder products through technology, they may also be benefiting from the fact that most consumers know little to nothing about the science it relies on. And a number of the scientists and food system advocates Civil Eats spoke to worry that a loophole at the U.S. Food and Drug and Administration (FDA) has allowed the company to declare its own products safe, despite being an ultra-processed food made with a novel set of proteins that have never before been on the market. There are also big questions about whether Perfect Day and its peers are simply providing a very expensive distraction from other more—to use their own word—urgent systemic solutions.

Or, as Anna Lappé, sustainable food advocate and author of Diet for a Hot Planet (and a Civil Eats advisory board member), put it in a recent interview about the phenomenon: “I don’t think the conversation about alternative meat and dairy should take the place of the important conversation about how dominant the meat and dairy industry is, how it needs to be regulated better. We’re not going to take on that corporate power by choosing a different [product] in the marketplace.”

Perfect Day’s Promises

Although Perfect Day was founded by dedicated vegans, and promises consumers a “kinder world” on its website, the company’s marketing doesn’t share facts or spend time talking in detail about factory animal farming. Instead, it’s positioning itself in a more neutral way that might appeal to omnivores as well as vegans.

“We hear from vegans all the time who love our products, but our target consumer is really any food lover who wants to reduce their environmental footprint,” said Tim Geistlinger, Perfect Day’s chief scientific officer.

Indeed the company says its supply chain results in as much as 97 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional milk. According to Briggs, if just 5 percent of the dairy industry replaced the whey in their products with Perfect Day’s, it would save 12.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions or the “equivalent to the carbon emitted from every single car registered in the city of Los Angeles.”

Perfect Day ice cream sandwiches. (Photo courtesy of Perfect Day)

Photo courtesy of Perfect Day

Perfect Day also provides its own detailed life cycle analysis (LCA) of the powdered whey protein on its website, where it claims to use less “blue water” and use 60 percent less nonrenewable energy than traditional milk production. When the company released the 2021 LCA— which was created for Perfect Day by WSP, a global engineering and infrastructure company and reviewed by a panel of experts—Leonardo DiCaprio applauded the company’s “forward-looking vision.”

However, Alastair Iles, associate professor of Sustainability Transitions at the University of California, Berkeley, is skeptical of the company’s claims, in part because they’re so dramatic.

“Biotech fermentation manufacturing can use up a lot of water and lead to significant wastewater pollution,” says Iles. “The centrifuge and drying parts will also use a lot of energy. This is why I would be a bit wary of a life cycle assessment that makes the big claims that the company does.” Case in point, while the LCA claims the emissions are reduced by anywhere from 85 to 97 percent, the company has chosen to use the largest number in its materials. And while the analysis is “based on projected production at a co-manufacturing site in the U.S.,” Geistlinger told Civil Eats that the company produces “our protein at a number of large food manufacturing sites globally.”

“We work with our co-manufacturers to ensure consistency regardless of where our protein is being produced, so our LCA is an accurate reflection of our protein production process,” he added. “That being said, we do plan to conduct additional analyses to even more deeply understand how aspects like geography may impact how we are creating a kinder, greener tomorrow and how we maximize that impact.”

Transparency and GRAS

On a weekday in December, the Perfect Day offices, located in an industrial neighborhood in West Berkeley, are nearly empty. After giving a reporter a short tour of the laboratory and test kitchen, Geistlinger offers up a tasting of the surprisingly creamy Modern Kitchen cream cheese on crackers.

“We want to be very transparent,” he said. “We want people to understand what we do and how it’s very much building on what the food industry has been doing for over 40 years, but we’re taking the next step.”

Geistlinger also stressed the fact that Perfect Day is using the same percentage of protein that you’d find in traditional dairy. “We want it to be the same as what the animal is offering. Most vegan products are very low on protein—they’re mostly starches and gums—but we’re matching [dairy] on protein, because we don’t want customers to feel like they’re cheated on that,” he said. 

That protein ferments in giant vats similar to the way beer does, but the process differs greatly from what most consumers think of when they hear the word “fermentation.” That’s because it involves genetically modifying a type of fungi similar to yeast (with genetic code from an online database) in a solution with sugar so that it excretes something called Beta-lactoglobulin. Then it’s spun in a centrifuge and dehydrated before combined with water and fats like coconut oil to create a “milk.”

Iles describes Beta-lactoglobulin as “a key part [but not the only part—perhaps 65 percent] of cow whey. It’s the milk skin that forms on top of a drink when heated.” But Iles and others we spoke to have some questions about the fact that the ingredient is allowed to be sold in food due to the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe or GRAS regulations, and it harkens back to debate about another ingredient in a meat alternative—the heme Impossible Foods makes using genetically engineered yeast.

“GRAS is now a way for food companies to quickly secure regulatory approvals of new food ingredients, as companies have more scope to make their own determinations and to provide the information they want to provide to the FDA. Plenty of food additives have been given GRAS status without real scrutiny; some may be quite safe for people to eat, but others might not be,” says Iles.

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Perfect Day sent FDA a GRAS notice—essentially explaining why they believe their new form of whey protein is safe. Then in March of 2020, they were informed that the agency “had no questions,” meaning it wouldn’t contest the use of the ingredients.

“We’re giving a microorganism the instructions on how to make a protein it wouldn’t normally make,” said Geistlinger.

But not everyone sees it that way. “Their basic argument is that because fungus-made whey is chemically identical to animal-made whey, it should therefore be approved. This also seems to be the FDA’s reasoning, but it’s based on the company’s argument,” says Iles.

“They’re assuming that because the amino acid is the same, nothing else has changed,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “Could this product that they’re producing have a different impact on gut microflora, for example, compared to a whey protein from a cow? The answer is, we don’t know. At the DNA level, it’s different.”

For this reason, Hansen says, “It would seem appropriate that these products be treated like new food additives.” And yet, at the same time, he believes the fact that Perfect Day is submitting GRAS notices at all is worth noting. Because the GRAS process is voluntary, “there could be companies out there putting these kinds of products into their foods without letting anybody know.”

That’s why Hansen and others in the public health and food safety fields have concerns about the GRAS that extend far beyond Perfect Day. The Center for Food Safety and the Environmental Defense Fund sued the FDA over the GRAS rule in 2017, and a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last October. Lawmakers have also introduced bills in Congress that would require the agency to study and reassess the chemicals used in foods.

The company acknowledges that allergies are a concern for those who might mistake the product for dairy-free. It has worked with the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program at the University of Nebraska and includes an allergen warning on the front of packaging, in addition to the mandated back of package warning.

We do not plan to do human testing because our whey protein is bioidentical to traditional whey protein which has been a staple of diets for centuries,” Geistlinger said. “Additionally, precision fermentation has been used safely for over five decades to create the majority of food enzymes, like rennet used for cheese manufacturing globally, and other common food staples.”

Michele Simon, a public health attorney and the former executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, compares the way companies like Perfect Day use terms like “precision fermentation” to earlier attempts seed and pesticide companies made to obfuscate the fact that they were using new, unknown technology to breed GMO seeds.

“In the Monsanto era, the biotech industry did a great job in getting the federal government to not require companies that use genetic engineering to label their products accordingly,” says Simon, “That’s been the history of the FDA for decades.” Last June, she penned a LinkedIn article examining Perfect Day’s “rush to market” with the Brave Robot ice cream and pointed to their use of the term “vegan friendly” despite the fact that it is made with whey. In it, she called out the brand’s narrative: “This messaging, attempting to justify a new form of biotechnology by comparing it to age-old food-making techniques should sound familiar,” Simon writes. “It’s from the Monsanto playbook.”

Replacing Factory Farming?

The market for plant-based alternatives is growing as more than 52 percent of Americans say they are eating more of these foods. But it’s not exactly clear whether new high-tech alternatives will actually lead to a reduction in overall consumption of factory farmed meat and dairy. In fact, overall U.S. meat consumption appears to have gone up slightly between 2020 and 2021. Overall dairy consumption has also increased more or less consistently since 2002.

“These companies will tell you they’re on a mission to displace dairy, but they can’t explain how putting out GMO protein products is displacing anything in the food system,” said Simon, who is an outspoken vegan. “Is Starbucks going to stop serving dairy now? The only way to save the nation from the damages of dairy production is to get a company to stop serving the harmful dairy.”

And not everyone wants to see all dairy displaced. For instance, Iles says that while the current model of industrial animal agriculture isn’t sustainable, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t move in that direction.

“Dairy has become very intensive, dependent on energy-consuming technologies, building much more massive cow herds than before, and using feed sourced from soybeans. At the same time, animals are central to sustainable agriculture. Not only can they contribute important inputs to a farm, they support a functioning farm ecosystem and help support a diversified farming system. So reducing—not eliminating—dairy milk would be a good idea.” He also points to the plight of farmers in places like Wisconsin, which lost 10 percent of its dairy farms in 2019 alone. “We need more support for those farmers to survive and to practice sustainable agriculture,” adds Iles.

“It’s important to not fall into a binary—that we have to choose between horrific factory farming or problematic GMOs,” says Dana Perls, the food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth. “There are very sustainably grown, organic, plant-based proteins. There are also very well managed, pasture-based production systems that have been providing a very critical alternative to factory meat and dairy,” she added.

And while Perfect Day doesn’t make big health claims, it isn’t clear that most consumers see meat alternatives as the heavily processed products they are.

“In recent years, ultra-processed foods have emerged as a major concern for public health experts,” said Iles. “Even if the [dairy products] are not in the same category as, say, packaged meals, it still amounts to a model of food production that is in the same line as the industrial foods we’ve been eating for decades,” he said.

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Looking to a Perfect Future

While Perfect Day has made itself at home in the dairy aisle, it’s also hoping to work with food manufacturers to include its whey in products typically found in a wide range of other parts of the store.

“We’ve already seen what our protein can do in replacing the equivalent of three eggs in cake mix and giving performance nutrition to athletes in protein powder, and our food team has created prototypes of everything from salad dressings to whiskey sour mixes to confectionary treats and beyond,” said Geistlinger. “We’re just getting started with whey.”

Many alt-protein brands have been acquired by large meat and dairy corporations in recent years —and Anna Lappé says that trend raises big questions about the potential for systems change.

“These products become a profit-generating portion of a portfolio for a company that can use that profit and invest it back into its highly environmentally destructive industrial meat and dairy production and expand those throughout the world as they continue to do,” says Lappé.

But that’s not Perfect Day’s plan.

“Our business model exists to help make other brands, big and small, kinder and greener,” Senior Corporate Communications Manager Anne Gerow told Civil Eats. “We aim to make our supply chain more resilient through partnerships with companies who want to use our protein or technology as part of their sustainability commitments, and [we] are not looking to be acquired by them.”

Nonetheless, Iles says he’s curious about whether the company plans to patent its manufacturing process. “A lot of the new technologies are more about creating valuable IP than anything else, if you look deeper,” he added.

And in the end, most of the critics we spoke to saw Perfect Day as representative of a much larger pattern: A reliance on new products and technology as silver bullets at a time when much larger change is needed.

For starters, that means relying less on dairy and meat as the basis of the American diet—regardless of how it’s made. “If Americans just ate—even if it was still terrible, factory-farmed meat and dairy—the amount of protein that was aligned with what our bodies can use and what science says is best for our health, there would be a dramatic reduction in the demand for meat in this country,” said Lappé.

It also means holding the companies that make our food to account rather than crossing our fingers that the next company will make better choices in a minimally regulated industry.

“We don’t need to hold out hope around being able to scale up a new technology,” said Lappé. “What we really need is the political will to take the kind of regulatory action needed and put pressure on corporations to clean up their supply chains.”

Tilde Herrera contributed reporting.

Flora Tsapovsky is a style, food and culture writer splitting her time between San Francisco and Tel Aviv. She is the founder of Parlar Series, a series of curated conversations about key concepts in our lives. Read more >

Twilight Greenaway is Civil Eats' senior editor and former managing editor. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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  1. Cynthia Gaffney
    This is exactly the kind of discussion/revelation that has been lacking throughout the rush to market of biotech "miracle" meats. There are most certainly GMO protesters who are now eagerly ingesting GMOs without knowing it.
    Thank you for this reporting.

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