Digitalization the key to boosting R&D in alternative protein industry
9 min read
As meat obtained from traditional livestock farming practices comes with a variety of environmental, sustainability, health, and ethical implications, consumers are becoming even more interested in alternative protein sources. If you are a leader in the industry, how can you gain a competitive edge
in this increasingly aggressive market? Here, we look at the alternative protein industry, its challenges, and how lessons learned from digitalization in the biopharma industries can help you gain grounds in the market and stay ahead of your competitors.
An industry undergoing rapid growth
“The market for alternative meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood products is set to reach at least $290 billion USD by 2035, as consumers drive unparalleled growth in plant-, microorganism-, and animal-cell-based alternatives.”
Alternative protein – also known as alt protein – refers to sources of protein other than animal meat obtained from traditional farming practices. This significant growth in the alternative protein market is thought to be caused by consumer interests in health, price, and other ethical and environmental considerations surrounding the sources of protein.
A recent analysis by the non-profit the Good Food Institute showed that the amounts of disclosed investments in alternative protein companies grew to $5 billion USD in 2021 globally; this is from $3.1 billion USD raised in 2020 and $1 billion USD raised in 2019. North American companies took up 60% of the investments in 2020/2021, followed by European entities at 30%.
From the public sectors, according to the FAIRR Initiative – a collaborative investor network with a focus on risks associated with intensive animal agriculture – Canada, the US, Singapore, and Denmark, are the top four countries that have made significant investments into the alternative protein industry, with each contributing $1-200 million USD based on public record.
At the time this article is written, there are more than 1300 alternative protein manufacturers and brands globally – with more than 1/3 founded just within the last five years. With the expectation that alternative protein will reach full parity in taste, texture, and price with animal protein by 2035 (with plant- and microorganism-based products reaching parity in just the next few years), the race is on as to who gets to it first to secure the market share.
Could cultured chicken be the first cultured meat to go into market in the US?
Cultured meat moving forward
While many countries have approved plant-based alternative protein products, Singapore remains the only country to date to give regulatory approval to cultured meat (also known as cultivated meat). This approval by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) may have been helped by the SFA’s aim to produce 30% of its “nutritional needs locally and sustainability by 2030”—also known as “30 by 30”. The 30 by 30 target hopes to increase local protein and vegetable production, with cultured meat potentially offering a more sustainable sources of protein compared to traditional livestock farming practices. It is a great example of how policies could significantly impact the progress in the industry.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently green lighted its first cultured meat product in its pre-market review process; the cultured chicken from UPSIDE Foods is now moving on to the standard process of animal food product review overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). With this, the US is one step closer to having cultivated chicken available in the supermarket.
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Alternative protein approval process in the US
Given that there are many different forms that fall under the alternative protein umbrella, regulations on alternative protein products could be dependent on the source material and the final output. In the US, one of the largest alternative protein markets, the alternative protein industry is regulated by the FDA and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
The FDA regulates plant-based foods and aimed to provide draft guidance on labelling of plant-based alternative protein sources in 2022 [updated 02-24-2023: FDA has released its draft guidance]. It also oversees human foods with cultured fish and seafood cells (except catfish), as well as animal feeds containing cultured animal cells and their byproducts.
For cultured meat derived from livestock and poultry, the FDA and FSIS set up an agreement to set out the roles of each agency to ensure that the cultured meat industry generates safe and correctly labelled products. As outlined in the USDA press release:
- The FDA focuses on cell collection, banking, growth, and differentiation
- The FSIS focuses on cell harvesting (transition from FDA to FSIS), manufacturing of products, and labelling of products
FDA also handles the pre-market consultation on production processes.
To ensure food products are safe, the FDA enforces the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Public Health Service Act, and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. Any unsafe or adulterated products are illegal, such as products handled in “insanitary conditions”. The FSIS enforces the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act, which can specify a range of requirements in relation to cultured meat products, such as pre-approval of labels and inspection of premises by the FSIS.
A helpful seminar on the regulation of cultured meat in the US and other countries can be found below:
Challenges ahead in the alternative protein industry
While the forecast for the alternative protein industry is promising, the industry still faces some obstacles to introduce alternative protein sources as part of the mainstream food supply. The Good Food Institute laid out some of the key challenges for both plant-based and cultured meat alternative protein products, including:
- Ensuring end product matches consumer needs and expectations
- Providing funding support for R&D work that will address key questions
- Expanding and improving production capacity and scalability
- Securing finance throughout the supply chain
- Better understanding, characterizing, and optimizing ingredients and source materials
- Developing and expanding distribution channels
Why alternative protein industry should digitalize now
Data digitalization can help the alternative protein industry tackle some of these challenges. We don’t need to look far for an example where digitalization has impacted an industry at large – the biotech and pharmaceutical industries share many similarities with the alternative protein industry, and have shifted toward digitalization to resolve some of these challenges. In fact, a recent report by Accenture showed that 70% of the Life Sciences industry leaders who are scaling or have scaled their digital efforts in the labs see the expected or exceeding expected return on investment (ROI).
Here are a few ways digitalization can benefit the alternative protein industry; these advantages are especially noticeable during the R&D process.
- Boost efficiency while reducing costs
- Improve traceability and ensure data integrity
- Speed up preparation for regulatory approval
- Support technology transfer and cross-department collaboration
Boost efficiency while reducing costs
As alternative protein products need to be priced to meet consumer expectations (reach cost parity), optimizing efficiency in routine processes and minimizing costs is a critical undertaking in the alternative protein industry.
By documenting things like protocols, research notes, ingredient and batch analysis, or other results digitally, researchers can share data much more easily, allowing for faster response to any crucial issues that need to be addressed. Furthermore, it will simplify the training process with new employees and ensure consistency and reproducibility in performing specific experiments or techniques. Lastly, digitalization opens the door for streamlining or automating lab processes such as data collection or lab inventory management. By improving efficiency, labs can save a significant amount of time and keep down the cost of innovation.
Improve traceability and ensure data integrity &
Speed up preparation for regulatory approval
Traceability is an important consideration in the alternative protein industry; you need to be able to trace the steps from R&D, upstream processes, downstream processes, formulation, to quality assessment. It is also critical in ensuring data integrity, and in accelerating the preparation for regulatory approval where you will need to provide clear documentation on how data are generated and prepared.
At the same time, time is of essence, and the process of preparation for regulatory approval could be slow and grueling. To this end, using a digital platform to handle data management provides a way to incorporate data traceability and data integrity practices directly into the documentation process. For example, you can keep track of what happen to the data through the built-in activity log, set up a clear approval process, or cross-reference ingredients, protocols, and experiment procedures. This helps to speed up the preparation and prevent unwanted setbacks.
Support technology transfer and cross-department collaboration
Developing a new alternative protein source is a team effort and usually requires expertise from different research units or external partners. This demands ongoing collaboration across departments, open communication with outside partners, and easy access of data among collaborators.
As mentioned previously, digital data are much easier to share. On top of this, digital tools could come with functionalities to help team members communicate with each other, thus smoothing the process of transferring important technology or information to another department or external contractors, and prevent the possibility of miscommunication leading to delay or unnecessary costs.
Electronic lab notebooks for the alternative food industry
Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are one digitalization tool that laboratories can use to effectively manage their information and data. ELNs offer a variety of benefits that can be useful in the alternative protein industry.
ELNs can provide a way to improve the traceability and transparency of the R&D process— meaning data and information can be easily monitored and checked, helping to quickly identify and rectify any errors during the R&D process to prevent future issues in production. ELNs can help companies adhere to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), Good Laboratory Practice (GLP), or follow other regulatory guidelines by incorporating tools such as e-signatures, audit trails, time stamps, and controlled access. Lastly, ELN can help you keep good records of your innovation process, which will come in handy if you file for a patent application for your unique formulation or process.
ELNs that have inventory features will allow employees to track supplies and product information, such as item location and safety information. With alternative protein companies potentially using an array of ingredients, keeping an eye on stock and inventory can help prevent delays—such as from waiting on ingredients or substances to arrive in the laboratory that can bring down efficiency.
The growth of the alternative protein industry will most likely excel in the next few years as alternative protein starts to reach parity with meat products. Digitalization presents a great opportunity for alternative protein companies to gain a competitive edge. It will help you speed up innovation, bring down the cost of development, and avoid additional production cost. To stay ahead, it’s time start considering digitalization options now.
Article by Dr. Brydie Thomas-Moore and Theresa Liao
Brydie Thomas-Moore is a freelance science/medical writer, information designer, and editor, with a biomedical PhD research background. Brydie has been working on a freelance basis in science communications for 4 years.
Theresa Liao is the Content Specialist at SciNote. She has a research background in experimental medicine, and 15 years of experience in grant facilitation, science communications, and science outreach.
If you like this post also check out:
- Data Integrity in your lab: The 6 steps you can take to avoid an FDA warning
- Three key themes from Future Food-Tech Alternative Proteins Summit via Automata
- Alternative proteins: The race for market share is on via McKinsey & Co
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