New Foods and Food Producers
Joel Schor. "The Evolution and Development of Biotechnology: A
Revolutionary Force in American Agriculture." Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 1994.
The new fermentation applications of biotechnology are resulting in
new foods and new food producers, as well as sophisticated refinements
throughout the existing production process. This development is not
restricted to the United States, but is a worldwide trend. Scotland,
a large producer of whiskey, is now being challenged by Japan.
However, Scottish entrepreneurs are responding to the Japanese rivalry
by creating a new, competitively priced soy sauce.
Biotechnology will probably play an expanded role in the refinement of
conventional fermentation processes involving dairy products,
beverages, cocoa, and the development of new strains of bacteria and
yeasts. Yet, there is a bias among the biogenetic companies against
the food and drink markets because the profit margins are considerably
less than in pharmaceuticals. Any new product will be viewed by
licensing authorities as new and novel and, therefore, will be subject
to the same costly approval procedures as pharmaceuticals.
Biotechnology can shorten certain time spans that will benefit the
food industry. The new tests for Salmonella, for example, pinpoint
food contaminants, frequently in less than 36 hours, which is an
improvement of several days over the older methods. A commercially
available enzyme can reduce the ripening period for cheesemaking by 2
months (about a third) for cheddar cheese. The savings are projected
at more than $50 million annually for the industry, once the enzyme is
further refined and becomes acceptable to cheesemakers. Toxicity
testing of such enzymes, as required by Federal regulations, has
caused concern within the industry. The process for regulatory
clearance is still new. A possible test case has emerged with a
genetically engineered rennin in cheese produced by Genencor, a joint
venture between Genentech and Corning Glass Works.
Genencor completed the world's first large-scale trials of cheeses
made with rennin produced by genetically engineered bacteria in the
1980s. The product is comparable in flavor and texture with the
naturally created cheese, and possesses the advantage of production in
unlimited quantities. Unlike rennin made from the stomachs of calves,
the new product would be acceptable to vegetarians. Another
U.S. biotechnology company, Collaborative Research, received the first
British patent for recombinant rennin in 1984, which the company
claimed to be the first patent on rennin as well as the first patent
on an industrial enzyme.
Other biotechnology firms are seeking salable bioproducts of cheese
making. Whey, for example, has received considerable interest as a
source of protein, a flavor-enhancer, binder in hamburgers, and
substitute for egg whites in baking, although the cost has yet to
become competitive. Costs in the health and diet markets, however,
are not as critical. Another byproduct of whey is methane gas. Eight
thousand tons of cheese will produce about 80,000 tons of whey waste,
from which 300 tons of protein can be extracted and a volume of
methane gas equivalent to 600 tons of oil.
In Wales, a biotechnology is concentrating on novel uses of Welsh milk
in yogurt and in production of a milk liqueur to rival Bailey's Irish
Cream, which currently commands the British liqueur market. In an
experimental stage within the Champagne region of France, work is
underway on a faster champagne production process. Yeasts are
encapsulated in a gelatinous membrane so that the sediments can be
removed more easily. If this is accomplished properly, many
filtration steps and subsequent losses of liquid will be eliminated.
Costs will be cut dramatically, but at no loss in the quality of the
Brewing industries worldwide have embarked on biotechnology research
as much to ensure survival as to find new profitable products. United
Breweries of Denmark (composed of Carlsberg and Tuborg) launched
Carlsberg Biotechnology in 1982 to develop new technologies and to
commercialize enzymes and other products involved in the brewing
process. New yeasts are being developed that are tailored to the
barley and hops of different regions of the world.
The U.K. Brewing Research Foundation is one of a number of
organizations developing diet beers. They are working with new yeast
strains that break down dextrin compounds and produce a
low-carbohydrate, low-calorie brew. Yeast fusion techniques or rare
mating, the crossing of normal brewing strains with mutant strains
that will not fuse in the normal way, have potential for the brewing
industry. Many of these traditional fermentation industries are not
only making products for themselves, but are diversifying into new
Allied Breweries of the United Kingdom, for example, attempted to
market a continuous fermentation process, originally developed for
beer production, aimed at the fuel-alcohol market. In the United
States, a number of new bio-startup companies are funded by brewers
like Adolph Coors, which is trying to develop new metal-cleaning
products expected to be environmentally safer than the existing
As pharmaceutical firms have moved into agricultural products, some
brewers are venturing into pharmaceuticals. Anheuser-Busch signed an
agreement in 1983 with Interferon Sciences to develop yeasts for
recombinant interferon production. Kirin, one of Japan's leading
brewers, entered into a joint venture with Amgen to develop and market
the hormone erythropoietin, while Suntory has the marketing rights in
Japan for Schering-Plough's gamma interferon.
Dairy companies like Snow Brand and Meiji Milk are moving into medical
biotechnology. Snow brand is making the transition to medical
biotechnology by way of health foods and foods with some medical
effect. Snow brand already sells milk products for people who cannot
tolerate the milk ingredients phenylalanine and histidine. The
company is developing products designed for heart disease and cancer
patients, and is also moving into plant biotechnology. Specialty
businesses, such as spice companies, are investing funds in
biotechnology to improve production.
Japan dominates the world in the production of amino acids, which are
used as additives in animal and human foods. The best-selling amino
acid is monosodium glutamate (MSG). Besides glutamic acid, other key
amino acids are aspartic acid, methionine, and phenylalanine.
Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are the two main components of the new
In the U.S., Genex developed the bioprocess for producing these last
two amino acids and derived much of its revenue from sales to
G.D. Searle, which markets aspartame as Equal (a granulated sugar
substitute) or NutraSweet (in diet versions of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola,
and Seven-Up). Genex also developed an even sweeter-tasting amino
Although no new sweeteners had been cleared for marketing in the
United Kingdom since the banning of cyclamate in 1969, the British
government cleared three in 1983: Searle's aspartame, which is 200
times sweeter than sugar; Hoechst's Acesulfame K, which is not as
sweet as aspartame, but more stable; and Tate & Lyle's Talin, which is
3,000 times sweeter than sugar and derived from a rare African fruit.
The gene for this sweetener, thaumatin, has also been cloned into
E. coli and into yeast at the Unilever Research Laboratory in the
Another aspect of the application of biotechnology to sweetener
production is the use of other natural fruit sugars besides cane
sugar. This is most apparent in the soft drink industry. Altered
enzymes are used to convert glucose into fructose or fruit sugar, a
process developed commercially in the 1960s. Fructose is found now in
Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. The conversion process was done initially
in a batch reactor, but a continuous system was developed in 1972,
which facilitated the scaling-up of production.
A big industrial plant can convert about 900 tons of corn starch into
high-fructose syrup every day. However, substitution of the
high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for cane sugar has produced some
adverse effects. A link has been established between the new product
and the inducement of diabetes in laboratory mice.
In addition, the livelihood of millions of Third World people has been
threatened by the substitution of HFCS for cane sugar. Income from
sugar exported from the Caribbean declined from $686 million in 1981
to $250 million in 1985, a figure that suggests that the social fabric
of the region was seriously affected. Relocation of 500,000 field
hands, widespread neglect of sugar farms, and diversification to other
crops have occurred. Farmers may be tempted to grow crops from which
illegal drugs are produced to earn more money. Pressures on
U.S. borders are liable to increase as illegal immigrants press
forward in greater numbers to find work in areas familiar to them.
Substitutions of this kind will probably continue, producing further
disruptions at home and abroad.
Vitamins and food flavorings are another area of biotechnological
interest. More productive microbial synthesis of vitamins such as B12
is possible, and blue-green algae may become a source of vitamin E.
W.R. Grace has invested in Synergen to have the company screen large
numbers of microorganisms for possible flavoring and other additives.
Another area likely to have a significant effect is single-cell
protein (SCP). SCP includes dried cells of microorganisms such as
bacteria, algae, molds, and yeasts. Interest in this simple
technology has led to trials in the alkaline waters of Mexico's Lake
Texcoco. Alkaline waters are a traditional source of Spirulina, which
is still dried and eaten by people living near similar ponds in other
parts of the world.
An Israeli company, Koors Food, has become interested in this
technology. The company's main interest is a green algae, grown in
brine ponds, which produces glycerol, a vital raw material for
chemicals, detergents, cosmetics, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and
SCP has also been produced by the action of bacteria, yeasts, and
fungi growing on feedstocks such as molasses, methane, methanol,
ethanol, cheese whey, cassava starch, and a range of agricultural and
forestry wastes. The product has created hope that the food problems
of the Third World can be solved through SCP technology. In the short
term, this hope appears premature. SCP is highly capital intensive,
involves outlays for facilities, and will probably face stiff price
competition from existing sources.
The economics are liable to be better for nations that possess surplus
methanol and have an agricultural deficit, such as the former Soviet
Union and the Persian Gulf states. Israel's major competitors in the
development and production of SCP are the former Soviet Union, ICI
Corporation, and Phillips Petroleum. SCP may be marketed by Phillips
for direct human consumption, although it was originally intended for
the animal-feed industry. It will probably be used to fortify flour
or rice in the Third World, rather than as a food by itself.
Food use of various fungi is being pursued by Ranks Hovis McDougall
(RHM), Europe's fourth largest food manufacturer. Since the 1960s,
the large bread producer has spent over $45 million on a fungus that
can be knit into acceptable substitutes of fish, chicken, and meat.
In 1984, RHM began to enlarge its production.
Thousands of fungi have been studied since 1968, leading to the
discovery of a new microorganism, Fusarium graminearum. The mold is
related to mushrooms and truffles; it is odorless and tasteless, and
contains about 45 percent protein and 13 percent fat, a composition
similar to that of grilled beef. The fat content is less than that in
raw beef, and Fusarium is high in dietary fiber. The relatively
slow-growing mold cells, commonly known as mycoprotein, have the
advantage of a nucleic acid content below the acceptable ceiling of 1
percent. Mycoprotein possesses an amino acid content close to that
recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations as "ideal." Even more unusual is the versatility of the
fungus, which has the capacity to be constituted as soups, fortified
drinks, biscuits, and convincing mock chicken, ham, and veal.
Mycoprotein and its derivatives are an entirely new product of
biotechnology and are considered by the FDA to be a new food. The key
to the adaptability of the mold is the ability to control the length
of fibers. Jack Edelmen, RHM's research director, believes that
mycoprotein is an economical way of converting any surplus
carbohydrate into foods of much higher nutritional and commercial
value. In the United Kingdom, the feedstock might be based on wheat;
in Ireland, the potato; and in tropical countries, cassava, rice, or
sugar. RHM is scaling up production and is investing in animal and
human trials to obtain FDA approval. The only obstacle remaining is
public willingness to accept the new product at mealtime.
New foods and drinks that will be available by the turn of the century
or sooner may not even be currently imaginable. Consumers will
probably not know that biotechnology is involved in their diet. While
the manufacturer may stress the natural aspect of the product, it is
unlikely that genetic engineering will be mentioned on the product
label. Tomatoes, for example, may look and taste alike, but with the
cloning of the ripening gene, they are apt to be different from those
grown yesterday and today.
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