WCMA Notes: Perfect Day at the Dairy Forum

Posted By: John Umhoefer WCMA News ,

Perfect Day could have described the weather for the Dairy Forum in Phoenix, but Perfect Day was in fact a headliner: the start-up 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 nondairy production of mimic proteins, and offering a surprising message of collaboration vs. 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 proto-typed a line of dairy products made with their protein. Pandya revealed that Perfect Day is focusing on production of beta lactoglobulin at this time. Their 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 home page of the Perfect Day website.  Pandya defended connecting their protein to dairy nomenclature while distancing themselves 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 their niche. It’s unclear how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 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 percent lower than animal-derived whey protein isolate. Perfect Day is executing a life cycle assessment of their dried protein vs. dried dairy protein to determine its environmental friendliness. Perfect Day is also targeting production of alpha lactalbumin and flora-based fats in the future.

Pandya doesn’t believe the bio-engineered flora at the core of their process will be a deterrent for consumers. The landscape is changing, Pandya said. Perfect Day is transparent on their production methods and consumer demand is there for non-animal derived foods, he believes. Their 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 percent 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.