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Biotech, Dairy Company Collaborate on Plant-Based Cheese

Wedge of plant-based blue cheese

Plant-based blue cheese (Climax Foods)

12 Apr. 2023. A maker of consumer dairy products and biotechnology food start-up are partnering on plant-based cheeses they say are indistinguishable from today’s dairy cheese. As part of their agreement, Bel Group in Paris is taking an equity stake in Climax Foods Inc., a three year-old company in Berkeley, California, but the size of the investment is not disclosed.

Bel Group is a global supplier of dairy and other food products, founded in 1865, and maker of well-known consumer brands such as Laughing Cow, Baby Bel, and Boursin cheeses. The company says its corporate policies aim for more sustainable production practices both internally and throughout the company’s supply chains. On 30 Mar., Bel Group announced its alliance for regenerative agriculture to use the company’s position as a major buyer of farm products to promote more environmentally-friendly agricultural practices, including replenishing natural nutrients and carbon-storage capacity in farm soil.

The collaboration with Climax Foods seeks to produce specialty cheese products from synthetic plant cells with the same flavor, texture, and nutritional content as dairy cheese, and on a scale large enough to make the price affordable for consumers. Climax Foods cites data showing animal agriculture is the third largest producer of carbon dioxide, with conventional farming techniques using 70 percent of the world’s fresh water. In addition, says the company, using animals to produce meat, dairy, and eggs is highly inefficient, with no more than 10 percent of the calories consumed by the animals resulting in usable food products.

Array of genetically diverse plant species

Climax says its process uses machine learning algorithms to create engineered plant cells and tissue with flavor, texture, and nutritional properties similar to dairy cheese. The company says the wide array of genetically diverse plant species makes it possible to identify and design synthetic plant cells at the molecular level with the desired characteristics for forming into cheeses that consumers cannot distinguish from the usual dairy products. In addition, says Climax, its algorithms can also find cell components from less expensive and more sustainable plant species to reduce costs to consumers and minimize the process’s environmental footprint.

“A.I. and data can be game changers in food in terms of delivering optimal taste and texture while at the same time making it affordable and sustainable,” says Climax Foods founder Oliver Zahn in a company statement released through Cision. “Evolving recipes over time is what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years. In addition to changing consumer preferences, climate change requires us to accelerate the evolution of food.” Zahn has a doctorate in astrophysics, and was head of data science at Google before starting Climax Foods.

The company so far produced prototypes of specialty cheeses — blue, brie, feta, and chèvre — and held cheese tasting events in New York and Los Angeles. Climax Foods announced last month its blue cheese will be available soon for retailers and food service customers. The new collaboration agreement calls for Bel Group and Climax to scale the process to enable production and distribution of these specialty cheeses in Europe and the U.S. by the end of 2024. Bel Group says its corporate objective is to have a product portfolio divided 50/50 between conventional dairy and plants.

“The products we will develop in partnership with Climax,” notes Bel Group CEO Cécile Béliot, “have the potential to make a big difference: they can meet the three-fold challenge of sustainable, nutritious, and accessible.”

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