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Perfect Day at the Dairy Forum

John Umhoefer

John Umhoefer is executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. He contributes this column monthly for Cheese Market News®.

“Perfect Day” could have described the weather for the Dairy Forum in Phoenix, but Perfect Day was in fact a headliner: the startup that’s fermenting dairy proteins with backing from Archer Daniels Midland.

Perfect Day CEO Ryan Pandya spoke not once but twice to rapt crowds, garnering some tough questions about the dairy references in his distinctly non-dairy production of mimic proteins, and offering a surprising message of collaboration versus competition.

It was a fine line to walk.

Perfect Day places the genetic coding for certain dairy proteins into filamentous fungi that convert supplied sugar into the target protein. It’s a method similar to the fermentation that produces enzymes for the cheese industry, Pandya noted. But at the Dairy Forum, one audience member pushed back, citing the complexity that kappa casein, for example, develops in the original fermenter — a cow.

Perfect Day can make kappa casein similar enough to be functional in food formulation, Pandya replied. The company has prototyped a line of dairy products made with its protein. Pandya revealed that Perfect Day is focusing on production of beta lactoglobulin at this time. The company’s goal is to produce 100 metric tons of this whey protein in 2020.

But is it whey protein? The labeling of these mimic proteins, and the marketing of them, produced some heat on an already warm day in Phoenix. A series of questions at Pandya’s first talk focused on his company’s strategy to liberally reference dairy, while denigrating it to promote his alternative.

“We love dairy for its indulgent flavors, unparalleled nutrition and versatility, but we don’t like the harmful way it’s produced or the fact that some people can’t enjoy it,” states the homepage of the Perfect Day website. Pandya defended connecting Perfect Day’s protein to dairy nomenclature while distancing the company from cows.

“Our protein is a whey protein, a non-animal whey protein,” Pandya said. Perfect Day is not aligning with plant-based protein, he noted, and is using the term “flora-based dairy protein” to describe its niche. It’s unclear how FDA will view “non-animal whey protein” on a food product label, but Perfect Day intends to include the allergen disclaimer “Contains Milk Protein.”

Pandya’s key message at the Dairy Forum was “Call me.” He noted he is already in discussion with dairy manufacturers; he envisioned dairy companies producing flora-based dairy products with Perfect Day protein to complement their dairy product lines. When asked how dairy companies could not consider Perfect Day a competitor, he parried, stating that the competitors in his sights were plant-based proteins.

Flora-based protein will out-perform pea or soy protein in alternative dairy applications, he said. “We could be dairy’s answer to plant-based proteins,” he told the processor audience.

But clearly the possibility of a new protein competitor had filled the conference room. Pandya estimated a future price point for flora-based whey protein at 40% lower than animal-derived whey protein isolate (WPI).

Perfect Day is executing a life cycle assessment of its dried protein versus dried dairy protein to determine its environmental friendliness. Perfect Day also is targeting production of alpha lactalbumin and flora-based fats in the future.

Pandya doesn’t believe the bio-engineered flora at the core of Perfect Day’s process will be a deterrent for consumers. The landscape is changing, Pandya said. Perfect Day is transparent on its production methods, and consumer demand is there for non-animal derived foods, he believes. Perfect Day’s website walks this line: “…genetic modification is part of our process, but it is not present in the final product.”

Hallway conversation ranged broadly after Ryan Pandya’s talks. He described his current goal to produce 100 metric tons of protein as “tiny,” and USDA data bears out that this would represent 0.2% of WPI production in the U.S. in 2018. Kudos to International Dairy Foods Association for inviting Perfect Day. Regardless of whether this high-profile startup is a collaborator or competitor, the landscape for quality protein is ever-changing, and dairy must continually sharpen its value proposition to meet competition and consumer expectations.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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