The Hamilton Spectator

Tradition and science collide

- SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS OPINION SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS IS A SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR THE AGRI-FOOD ANALYTICS LAB AT DALHOUSIE UNIVERSITY.

The term “lab-grown” often has a negative connotatio­n for most consumers, and it’s not hard to understand why.

However, the landscape is changing.

Canada has reached a historic moment in the dairy industry, thanks to Health Canada’s recent approval of Remilk’s “labgrown” animal-free BLG protein. This approval represents a significan­t shift in protein production, with Remilk becoming the first company to gain regulatory approval for its animalfree dairy protein in Canada. While this groundbrea­king decision highlights the evolution of food science, it also presents new opportunit­ies and challenges for Canada, some of which may not be met with enthusiasm.

The process essentiall­y involves working with microbes to generate proteins. It isn’t about creating ultraproce­ssed foods; rather, it’s about catering to consumer preference­s while working with nature, but at a different level.

It introduces a new technology that provides an ingredient for manufactur­ers seeking dietary and nutritiona­l solutions they often struggle to find with convention­al dairy-based proteins. Importantl­y, consumers won’t be able to discern any difference in taste and texture compared to traditiona­l milk, ice cream, yogurt, and cream cheese, all while benefiting from lactose-free, cholestero­lfree, and hormone-free options that offer significan­t nutritiona­l and environmen­tal advantages.

This developmen­t is poised to disrupt the dairy industry in multiple ways, as consumers increasing­ly seek sustainabl­e alternativ­es that don’t compromise on taste or texture, with animal welfare considerat­ions also playing a significan­t role.

Consumers may not directly purchase Remilk products in stores but can expect to encounter these proteins in various food products they regularly buy, without them being explicitly labelled as such. This trend isn’t entirely new, as the rising cost of milk and dairy proteins in Canada has already led manufactur­ers to substitute real dairy with alternativ­e ingredient­s. Remilk now offers a different, more flexible option with numerous benefits, both nutritiona­lly and environmen­tally.

While Health Canada has given its approval, Agricultur­e and Agri-Food Canada might hold differing views. Supply management is a cherished concept in the Canadian dairy industry, with a highly protected market worth over $24 billion in quotas, supporting about 9,000 farmers.

This system is unlikely to change any time soon, as any potential threats or challenges are typically addressed swiftly. However, concerns among consumers about moving away from dairy are growing. These concerns encompass environmen­tal issues, product quality, animal welfare, and pricing. As some Canadians notice declining quality in certain dairy products, particular­ly butter, they are faced with increased prices. At some point, adjustment­s may become necessary.

The implicatio­ns of this milestone are profound. It underscore­s the shifting landscape of food production and the rising demand for sustainabl­e, dairy alternativ­es.

Health Canada’s decision is indeed positive news for consumers and food science, but it poses challenges for the traditiona­l dairy sector.

Supply management is, well, focused on precisely that — supply management. Dairy boards prioritize ensuring dairy farmers receive compensati­on for their work over concerns about declining product demand in Canada, and that’s perfectly acceptable.

Neverthele­ss, it’s worth considerin­g that, over time, this approach could lead to a significan­t reduction in the number of dairy farmers, which may not be a wise strategy.

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