July seems to have a fireworks show every night. If it isn’t the New York City mayor denigrating beef and dairy farmers or the hens and cows getting scaled for their cells, we now have an animal-free, precision fermentation-derived whey protein that calls itself real milk by a New York City-based company who anoints itself a farm when it’s not. Yogi Berra summed it up: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and its 25 U.S. dairy-marketing cooperatives and associate members who market more than two-thirds of the American milk supply are attempting to close the gate on the cartoon-rich Bored Cow brand (tryboredcow.com), housed at the fantastical Tomorrow Farms (tomorrowfarms.co), who proudly advertise “We took the cow out of cow’s milk.”

The “farmers” at Tomorrow Farms say they are “made up of seasoned entrepreneurs, operators and creators who are passionate about disrupting the status quo, fixing our broken food system and playing a small role in resolving the climate and ecological crisis.” There’s nothing about ruminant agriculture in regards to ecological processes, soil health or real nutrition from the land and the farmer’s role in managing complex systems.

They tout themselves as “a next generation food technology company on a mission to fix our food system by building irresistible food and beverage brands that are better for people, kinder to animals and easier on the planet.”

What would Bossie say? Will there be herds of free-roaming, bored livestock in the cul-de-sacs? Is this the latest attempt to control farm families on what they can produce? Who can afford synthetic milk at 80 cents/ounce? You’ve got to wonder what’s really in the pantry of these dairy disrupters. Is there any respect for true biological systems anymore versus vats of sterile medium?

President and CEO of NMPF Jim Mulhern is calling out the “creatives” at Tomorrow Farms and “Bored Cow’s fictional manure” by simply making this point of labeling to consumers and farmers: “It’s the difference between … water, animal-free whey protein (from fermentation), sunflower oil, sugar, less than 1% of vitamin A, vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), vitamin D2, riboflavin, citrus fiber, salt, dipotassium phosphate, acacia, gellan gum, mixed tocopherols (antioxidant), calcium potassium phosphate citrate and natural flavor” versus “milk and vitamin D3.”

Bored cows vs. real cows

Is there even such a thing as a “bored cow”?

In this battle over labeling plant-based milk alternatives, Mulhern is engaging, privately and very publicly through media outlets, the brass at the FDA. “I’ve expressed my ongoing concern about FDA’s lack of action in enforcing the labeling of plant-based food products and the ensuing labeling fiasco in the marketplace that has occurred as a result of the agency’s longtime failure to address the problem. I also raised concern in that discussion that this problem would be exponentially compounded should the agency fail to address these same labeling standards as synthetic, cell-based foods emerge from laboratories and seek to enter the marketplace.”

“Like the plant-based labeling fiasco that’s bedeviled regulators for more than four decades, we are beginning to see the presence of mislabeled synthetic food products in the marketplace masquerading as natural foods,” Mulhern wrote in a June 26, 2023 letter to FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, MD.

FDA has a legal obligation to ensure that food labels are accurate, truthful and not misleading. Products are now coming into the marketplace that do not meet FDA Standards of Identity (nmpf.org/need-for-lab-based-beverage-action-as-clear-as-a-milk-label).

Mulhern continued, “The synthetically produced product from Bored Cow is not milk. It is not even close. Bored Cow’s product takes water and adds what we believe to be one unidentified, lab-engineered ‘whey protein’ along with a highly processed concoction of food additives, preservatives, oil, sugar and several added vitamins, and claims to have created ‘animal-free dairy milk.’ It is baseless, preposterous and absurd to call the resulting product ‘milk.’ It would be much more accurate to label it as a ‘synthetic whey beverage.’

“In the interest of public health, the misleading labeling charade must end before it gets out of hand. FDA must act, and must do so now. Dairy farmers are more than happy to compete in the marketplace, and we do not oppose the sale of synthetic, cell-based products if regulatory authorities deem them safe. But public health, safety and federal law requires that their labels be truthful and not misleading. Everyone should be held to follow the rules, regardless of whether a company is too ‘Bored’ to do so.”

Many food companies with dairy lines are also diversifying into the “animal-free dairy” sector. At the root of Mulhern’s reaction is the dairy-identical whey protein biology platform, nth Bio by Perfect Day (perfectday.com/process). Founded in 2020 by bioengineers Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, the company says it’s “the first of its kind to help partners of all sizes create a kinder, greener future through precision fermentation.”

“We place our microflora in a tank filled with broth made of water, nutrients and sugar. And because they have the blueprints, when our microflora ferment the broth, they make a pure animal protein without ever touching an animal. Instead of relying on cows, Perfect Day utilizes microflora to create proprietary animal-free milk protein. Perfect Day’s protein can be used across a range of products to deliver the same taste and texture without compromise.”

Partners in-market include Mars, Nestlé, Natreve, Brave Robot, General Mills, Starbucks, Myprotein, Strive Nutrition, Nick’s, Tomorrow Farms, Villa Dolce and Betterland with financial backing from Disney CEO Bob Iger, Horizons Ventures, ADM Ventures and Temasek.

You might be wondering who is publicly defending real dairy against broth milk. Other than individual farms, social influencers (the “agvocates”) and podcasters – crickets. Defense seems to be a better position strategy when appealing to all customers.

The truth is, though, it’s hard to scratch microflora behind the ears – and witness how ruminant agriculture and farmers partner to feed the majority of America from land and not from vats.

by Troy Bishopp