The confusing (and potentially harmful) labeling of Perfect Days biotech ice cream

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Last week, Food Navigator reporter Elaine Watson tweeted that she spotted the new ice cream brand Brave Robot on shelf with retailer-created tags reading “plant-based.”

This is highly problematic given that Brave Robot’s ice cream is made with synthetic biology and is not plant-based. To the contrary, it contains whey protein, which for some people could trigger serious allergic reactions.

Has this new technology been rushed to market without proper legal review? As a food lawyer, seeing mislabeled products sends shivers down my spine. This is not your run in the mill deceptive labeling. People’s lives are potentially at risk with the wrong labeling on products containing such a common allergen as dairy protein.

I had already noticed some inconsistencies in the roll-out of several ice cream brands based on the biotech dairy ingredient created and supplied by Perfect Day.

While the “plant-based” shelf tag mistake is likely the fault of the retailer, given that this biotech ice cream represents an entirely new food category that does not fit into any existing retailer sections, the confusion is not surprising.

What to call it?

It is certainly challenging to figure out how to label biotech ice cream in a way that is both honest and marketable to consumers in a way they will understand.

Is it vegan? Technically yes since the process does not use traditional animal ingredients. But because the word vegan has always been understood to mean free of dairy, it’s potentially confusing to use it for a product that contains whey protein.

And yet some brands are indeed using the word vegan.

While Perfect Day uses the descriptor “animal-free”, even that can be confusing because it can also mean vegan. (When followed by “dairy protein” that is more clear.)

The Perfect Day website showcases three brands the company calls partners. Each brand uses different labeling conventions and words to describe the product. (Perhaps Perfect Day is using each brand’s own description on the following text from the Perfect Day website.)

Nick’s: “Nick’s vegan line offers a frozen dessert with the same creaminess as their traditional Swedish-style ice creams, but animal-free and lactose-free.”

Graeter’s: The Graeter family is finally able to bring the same level of indulgence to an animal-free, lactose-free dessert.

Brave Robot: Utilizing Perfect Day’s animal-free dairy protein ….

Brave Robot is also using the word vegan on the side of the container and on their website says the product is “vegan-friendly”, which usually just means vegan.

Also inconsistent is the use of a disclosure for the dairy protein on the front of the container, which would help alert the consumer. While Perfect Day says only “old” pints do not have the dairy disclosure and that the latest versions do have it, this tweet from mid-May shows Brave Robot containers in store without any disclosure.

To make matters worse, some media outlets and bloggers have described Brave Robot as “plant-based”. See for example this article referencing Brave Robot’s “plant-based whey proteins”. See also this review, entitled, “Brave Robot Is the Plant-Based Ice Cream That Seriously Puts the Classic to Shame”. The author is downright giddy as she erroneously describes the product as being plant-based several times:

· “Through the magic of science, they’ve unlocked the flavor and texture of dairy in an entirely plant-based dessert.

· “Basically, it’s possible for them to make vegan, lactose-free and plant-based dairy ice creams due to some incredible science.”

· “If you’re vegan, or just like to go plant-based a couple of times a week … “

While it may not be the fault of Perfect Day/Brave Robot that this reviewer (and others) get it wrong, it is their responsibility to correct it. And they certainly did know a review was coming as the blogger noted that the company was “generous enough to send four tasty flavors.” And yet this review is dated September 2020.

Greenwashing biotechnology?

According to Fortune, Perfect Day has raised over $360 million from investors banking on the company’s fake dairy made with synthetic biology. (The applications are potentially vast; ice cream is small compared to the size of the cheese market.) While the process involves genetic engineering, Perfect Day doesn’t want to call it that.

Instead, the company’s website calls their process “precision fermentation”, a made-up phrase this industry sector deploys as a euphemism for synthetic biology, as I explained in my article on greenwashing biotech.

What is synthetic biology? According to one definition, it “involves creating new biological systems in vitro by bringing together ‘non-living’ biomolecular components, often with the aim of constructing an artificial cell.

The idea is to mimic the DNA of the thing you want to make, and then use genetic engineering to replicate and create the final product. Here is how the environmental group Friends of the Earth describes it: “GMO yeast, algae and other organisms act as ‘living factories’ to produce … food.”

In another attempt to greenwash, Perfect Day uses the phrase “microflora”, instead of GMOs. This webpage called “meet the flora” explains the process by making it sound just like lots of familiar foods:

“Most people are familiar with fermentation as a process for co-opting microflora’s natural biological processes to make beer, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and a whole host of other traditional fermented foods. Modern industrial fermentation uses biotechnology to build further upon those natural, age-old processes and turn microflora into tiny factories that make useful molecules — often proteins. We call this precision fermentation.”

This messaging, attempting to justify a new form of biotechnology by comparing it to age-old food-making techniques should sound familiar. It’s from the Monsanto playbook. I wrote extensively about biotech industry spin during the GMO labeling fights. This notorious biotechnology industry website, GMO Answers, goes to great lengths to compare modern day GMOs to traditional plant selection and cross-breeding techniques.

Rush to market?

This Food Navigator article describes how Perfect Day spun off another corporate entity called (aptly enough) The Urgent Company, which in turn owns the Brave Robot brand, so really it’s all coming from the same corporate structure and investors.

Perhaps the confusion on shelf can be explained by how fast the product was launched. In an interview with Food Navigator, Perfect Day CEO Ryan Pandya proudly shared: “Not many CPG companies can get a product from concept to launch in 16 weeks”.

That’s because it’s usually not a good idea.

This article in TechCrunch describing how Perfect Day created The Urgent Company specifically for brand launches also celebrates the short timeline to launch: “With only eight full-time members of The Urgent Company staff, it managed to shepherd its ice cream business from inception to product launch within a three-month time frame”.

Also: “Part of the reason why the company is so unfettered is to encourage speedy experimentation for the simple reason that there’s not much time to take the steps needed to slow down — and ideally reverse — climate change.”

Perfect Day co-founder Perumal Gandhi is quoted at the end of the article: “You only get so much time on earth… and we wanted to do more… That’s why it’s called The Urgent Company… [because] let’s hurry the fuck up, world.”

Except when you cut corners, there are often trade-offs. The nascent biotech animal replacement industry should take a collective breath and stop letting pressure from investors and worry about climate change get in the way of good business practices.

Because while you may be trying to save animals and the planet, but it’s people who are consuming your untested products, so let’s not forget about them.

Michele Simon is a public health attorney, author, and founder and former executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association. (Full bio.) Got ideas to share? [email protected]

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