Precision Fermentation: Industry Stakeholders Release Refined Definition as Alt-Protein Sector Heats Up

6 Mins Read

The Precision Fermentation Alliance (PFA) and Food Fermentation Europe (FFE) have together announced a refined definition of precision fermentation to provide clarity and distinction from other food technologies, in the face of rapid advancements in the sector.

While it has been in use for over 30 years – in insulin, rennet for cheese, and vitamin supplements – most people only first heard of precision fermentation in recent years for its use in alternative protein applications.

But more and more technologies are flooding the future food industry, while the precision fermentation sector itself has witnessed a chunk of advancements lately. This is why it has become so important to better understand what the technology is all about.

That’s the basis of the work done by industry bodies the Precision Fermentation Alliance (PFA) and Food Fermentation Europe (FFE). Both organisations were founded early last year, with the aim of serving as an industry voice to advance regulatory compliance, unlock public and private investments and partnerships, and educate consumers about the tech.

To help clarify what it entails and clearly differentiate it from its alternative protein counterparts, the two bodies have now announced a refined and expanded definition of the technology.

Precision fermentation combines the process of traditional fermentation with the latest advances in biotechnology to efficiently produce a compound of interest, such as a protein, flavour molecule, vitamin, pigment, or fat.

How does it work?

  • A specific molecular sequence is inserted into a microorganism to give it instructions to produce the desired molecule when fermented. These molecular sequences are derived from digitized databases rather than taken directly from the relevant animals or plants.
  • At the end of the fermentation process, the resulting compounds are filtered out, separating them from the microorganisms that produced them.
  • Precision fermentation has been in use globally for over 30 years to make medicines (like insulin) and countless common food ingredients (such as human milk oligosaccharides or rennet).”

“As more companies are commercialising new food production technologies and ingredients, we found that there was a need to further refine the definition of precision fermentation to help educate the food ecosystem about the differences between similar technologies and resulting products,” Irina Gerry, vice-chair of the board of directors at PFA and chief marketing officer of precision fermentation company Change Foods, tells Green Queen.

How precision fermentation is different from other food technologies

new culture cheese
Courtesy: New Culture

The PFA and FFE clarify that precision fermentation stands apart from traditional or wild fermentation and natural breeding techniques by leveraging the latest bioengineering techniques. “We wanted to draw a distinction between natural or traditional fermentation that we use to make beer, yoghurt or kombucha, and precision fermentation, which is leveraging the latest advances in biotechnology,” explains Gerry. “By using biotechnology, we are able to program microorganisms to produce specific molecules that they would not make otherwise.”

The molecular sequence in precision fermentation is derived from digitalised databases instead of animals or plants, and the targeted molecules are isolated and filtered out from the fermentation. This is in contrast to biomass fermentation, where the entire biomass (including the cells) is the product.

“Since the first DNA sequence was performed in the 1970s, scientists have sequenced many plant and animal species. These sequences are now catalogued in digitised databases globally, and many are accessible online,” says Gerry. “For example, one can copy the DNA sequence of whey protein, such as beta-lactoglobulin or lactoferrin, transfer it into a microorganism, using bioengineering techniques, and create a unique milk-protein-producing strain.

“These microorganisms will produce the desired whey protein during fermentation, which can be later filtered out, creating a whey protein isolate that is equivalent to whey protein that comes from cow’s milk, but without any direct involvement of the animals. This technique is a defining feature of precision fermentation.”

This is also a key aspect that separates precision fermentation from cell cultivation. Sourcing molecular sequences from digitalised databases eschews the need for animal involvement in any stage of the process, which is different from cultivated meat, where a small sample of cells is taken from a live animal. And unlike cell cultivation, precision fermentation focuses on using microorganisms to produce specific compounds of interest, rather than growing an entire cell or biomass.

This is evidenced by what leading precision fermentation companies are doing – using microbes like fungi, algae and bacteria to produce specific proteins, fats, vitamins, and flavouring and colouring agents, which can be combined with other ingredients to make end products. Cultivated meat companies are, instead, creating the end product, such as chicken and beef.

“Ingredients made via precision fermentation would be required to go through the standard regulatory approval process,” confirms Gerry.

Progress for precision fermentation outlines need for education and scale-up

precision fermentation egg
Courtesy: The EVERY Company

“We are excited to contribute to the understanding of precision fermentation and its role in advancing food innovation,” notes FFE president Jevan Nagarajah.

Nagarajah is the founder and CEO of Better Dairy, a member of FFE, alongside Formo, Imagindairy, Onego Bio, Those Vegan Cowboys, Bon Vivant, and Standing Ovation. The PFA, meanwhile, counts Change Foods, Perfect Day, The EVERY Co, Helaina, Imagindairy, Remilk, Motif FoodWorks, New Culture and Onego Bio as its members.

Many of them have made strides in recent weeks. Just last week, Perfect Day announced its partnership with Unilever, with its precision-fermented whey protein forming the base for a new lactose-free chocolate ice cream by Breyers. This came two weeks after fellow CPG giant Nestlé launched the Better Whey protein powder under the Orgain brand, made from precision fermentation as well.

This year has proven to be a significant one for regulation too. New Culture became the first company to attain self-affirmed GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status for animal-free casein earlier this month, a week before Vivici obtained the certification for its whey protein. That came a month after Imagindairy received a ‘no further questions’ letter for its precision-fermented whey from the FDA. In 2023, Remilk (also producing whey) joined Perfect Day on that FDA GRAS list, alongside The EVERY Co, which earned its third GRAS notification late in the year for egg proteins.

Aside from these launches and regulatory breakthroughs, investors have had an eye on this space too. Perfect Day itself is closing a $90M Series A funding round (announced last month), but other companies have secured smaller capital injections recently too, including casein producer Standing Ovation (€3M) and bioactive protein maker Triplebar ($20M). And, this May, the EU will open applications for investments totalling €50M in precision fermentation and algae-based food startups as part of its Horizon Europe scheme.

Moreover, there have been some manufacturing and scale-up milestones. Imagindairy unveiled an industrial-scale facility with a 10,000-litre fermentation capacity, Daisy Lab ramped up production for its beta-lactoglobulin whey powder and diversified into lactoferrin protein, Yali Bio created what it claimed was the world’s first yeast-derived breast milk fat from precision fermentation, and Bond Pet Foods reached a scaling milestone alongside Hill’s Pet Nutrition to develop pet food products – all in the space of a month.

All this underlines the progress made by the precision fermentation space, as well as the need for further education. “One of the reasons we created PFA is to help educate consumers about precision fermentation, its benefits and the types of ingredients that can be made. Precision fermentation has a long and safe history of use in food. It is the same technology that is used to make insulin, vitamins and natural flavours today,” says Gerry.

“Scaling [up] manufacturing and reducing costs of production is critical for these ingredients to be able to effectively compete with animal-derived ingredients,” she adds. “The industry is addressing it in multiple ways. We see new types of private and public funding, university training programs, industry partnerships, and contract manufacturing companies getting established to support these efforts. It won’t happen overnight, but the process is underway.”


  • Anay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen's resident news reporter. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and is now travelling and reporting from across Asia. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, food tech, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.

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