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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 product.

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 areas.

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 chlorinated products.

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 sweetener, aspartame.

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 acid, serine.

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 Netherlands.

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 explosives.

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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