Why precision fermentation is in the Non-GMO Project’s crosshairs

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.”

Optional Caption

Courtesy of Mars

 

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.”

Megan Westgate

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.