New research shows that early adopters are excited by the idea of animal-free dairy and want more information on new products. The focus group study report, published on Frontiers in Nutrition in October 2022, found that participants were up for trying new foods to help solve problems of the current food system, despite worries about the ‘naturalness’ of the products. However, they were sceptical about bold claims of risks and benefits, and wanted straightforward information.
The study was carried out by Associate Professor Garret Broad of Rowan University, New Jersey, the NGO Mercy for Animals and Berlin-based precision fermentation company Formo. It consisted of focus groups carried out in the US, UK, Germany, and Singapore. The 50 participants were pre-selected for their willingness to try new products. One participant was vegan.
They were shown a 90-minute slideshow of the impact of dairy and introduced to the concept of animal-free dairy, including how precision fermentation replicates cow DNA using microorganisms to make casein. They were also shown reasons why precision fermentation might be a bad idea.
Oliver Zollman Thomas of Formo explains that the researchers wanted to learn how consumers with an awareness of environmental problems responded to the solution that precision fermentation offers: “We wanted to see how people responded and how their minds worked, to get a picture of how our work interacts with issues people care about. We wanted to learn how the solutions we are offering connected with people’s relationship with food, nature, animals, and the environment to help us understand how to talk about them.”
It follows previous a previous Formo study of 5000 consumers on how often people buy cheese against their age and income, which was a first step towards understanding who consumers of precision fermentation are likely to be. This latest study goes beyond how to sell products in the supermarket and looks at how to have the conversation in society about why it is needed.
One key finding was how excited people were to have the conversation. Oscar Zollman Thomas: “Once we started the discussion it moved in a positive direction. Everyone was so engaged throughout the process. It’s clear that there’s a massive appetite for this topic. There was a huge awareness that something needs to change, and that the food system today doesn’t reflect their feelings about the world or their morality.
“People thought precision fermentation was an interesting idea. Many were enthusiastic had lots of questions. Even if people didn’t immediately say they’re giving up milk and animal products it made them question the current food system. And that is a positive thing for our planet and companies like ours who are trying to offer new solutions.”
One surprising finding was that despite some worries about genetically modified food, the consumers were open to the DNA of microorganisms being altered. “They made a big distinction between changing the DNA of a plant or animal and changing the DNA of a micro-organism. It was more palatable to them than I had assumed.”
Formo is Europe’s first cellular agriculture company currently using precision fermentation to produce animal-free dairy. The company is currently scaling up its processes and is likely to have products for tasting in 2023. However, there are still issues around the regulating of novel foods which must be resolved before animal-free dairy products are available to buy in shops. Positive consumer attitudes will be needed to convince the authorities to support precision fermentation products. This study suggest that the public are open to new foods if they are exposed to the thinking behind it.
Oscar Zollman Thomas believes both understanding and educating consumers is crucial to getting public and authorities on board: “A takeaway from this survey is that investing energy in starting the conversation can be a really good way to get people thinking about what they truly want from the food system. Stimulating the discussion in society is a powerful way to get people thinking about how they want to change their behaviour and what technologies or products they can embrace. I believe 100% that it’s our job to educate people about the work we do. And, to encourage a conversation about what kind of food system we want and the kind of relationship with nature and animals we want. That is all part of our remit.”