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RIC-resolve: Going the extra mile for the alternative proteins industry

October 2, 2023

RIC is a privately-owned European center of excellence, located in Belgium, which offers analytical solutions. For more than 35 years, the company has been supporting customers in various industries, including food, environmental, pharma, biotech, (petro)-chemistry, cosmetics, etc, with their most challenging analytical questions. The company is also an exhibitor at The Future of Protein Production LIVE! Conference & Exhibition, taking place next week

RIC played a key role in the Belgian dioxin crisis back in 1999 by developing a sensitive PCB-screening GC-MS method applicable to various food matrices. The method, allowing high sample throughput at a lower cost and quick turnaround time, was implemented in multiple routine labs to deal with the tremendous demand for sample analysis. It seemed to be the way out of this massive crisis in which the food chain was contaminated with transformer oil. Since then, RIC has built an impressive track record in food analysis.

More recently, the company has started to support customers that focus on novel food production. Its analytical know-how and knowledge gathered over the years in different markets, on different solutes (metabolites, proteins, surfactants) and sample types, is extremely valuable in this respect.

RIC was originally contacted by people making the transition from the biopharmaceutical industry toward the novel food domain and, hence, gained expertise in the analysis of cell-derived and precision fermented products. Together with its customers, RIC has gathered insight into the market, regulations, and specific requirements. As such, the company has become a go-to partner for the next generation of cell-derived food and food ingredients in need of risk mitigation through highly sensitive analytical methods.

Although its journey in this new and fascinating sector only started a few years ago, RIC is nevertheless proud to actively take part in the food revolution.

Embracing the future

So, why now more than ever before must we be embracing alternative proteins? "The impact of an ever-growing food demand on our planet is obvious," says Yves Meyvis, Director of Business Development, Sales & Marketing at RIC Group. "The novel food initiative with its drive for a more sustainable industry has definitely triggered great awareness and has surpassed its 'hype stage'. Alternative ways of production are no longer a nice-to-have, but rather our future. It is clear that on the short-term alternative proteins will not fully replace our 'conventional' protein sources, but it is important to keep investing in new solutions to make sure our society has alternatives and the consumer has a choice."

What does Meyvis believe is the biggest hurdle facing the industry succeeding? "For every new product, there will always be a significant upfront investment to make, before being able to see its actual return," explains Meyvis. "For alternative proteins certain limitations like scale-up cost and production capacity definitely play an important role. However, we are hopeful that with the right science and technologies these obstacles will be overcome."

Meyvis goes on to suggest that "innovation equals venturing into the unknown".

The first steps, he suggests, are taken by applying the right science, but as soon as you want to make your new product available to the public, you will need to follow the proper regulatory channels. "For novel food, there is still a lot of debate on this (e.g. terminology) and across the world different agencies tend to apply different regulations," he says. "Your time-to-market can take a long time taking into account the trial and error in your product development, so a clear regulatory strategy would definitely help to focus your efforts and resources."

Ultimately, although Meyvis believes alternative protein production is still in its infancy and its processes and upscaling still need further optimization, in the grand scheme it serves the ideals of the sustainable food initiative. "Also, many of the industrial partners active in protein production actively promote sustainability: sourcing the ingredients, circular use of energy, animal welfare (immortalization of cell lines, serum-free culture medium), biomass re-use, etc. Today, even negative-carbon emission solutions emerge."

In Meyvis' opinion, there hasn’t yet been enough attention from the broader media on the topic. "The novel food industry has gained some attention these past years, with some countries taking the lead and celebrities promoting it," he admits. "I believe this type of attention can be beneficial for the industry as it creates public awareness at multiple fronts and attracts investments and talent, which in turn can help accelerate research and development. How quickly and how successful this will all turn out in the end is difficult to predict. For every new invention or trend, there will always be pioneers and early adopters, and those that prefer to wait it out."

Take back control of the narrative

What is important, though, is that the industry does not let other sectors or lobbies control the narrative. "It is crucial to strategize the communication – that is why education and transparency are key. The alternative protein industry should prioritize educating the public, policymakers, and media about the science, technology, and benefits of alternative proteins. This includes providing accurate and transparent information about the environmental, health, and animal welfare advantages of these products. We have to make sure we create awareness for the larger audience."

However, there are some actions the industry could adopt to control the narrative. “It is crucial for the industry to foster collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including farmers, traditional meat producers, policymakers, and consumer advocacy groups,” says Meyvis. “By constructive dialog and seeking common ground, the industry can address concerns, eliminate misconceptions, and build trust. Dialog with regulatory authorities to come to clear and fair regulations is important, too. The industry should actively participate in discussions around safety (quality, risk assessment), labeling requirements. Scientific data, meanwhile, will help counter misinformation and provide a solid foundation for further discussions on alternative food sources. And by properly informing and involving people/media, greater awareness is created. Communicating the benefits, taste, and versatility of these products can help create a positive perception among consumers and reduce the influence of negative narratives. Production (fermentation, cellular) should be given a positive image, not something coming out from a mysterious Frankenstein-kind of lab.

“The more alternative proteins are talked about, the more consciousness is created,” says Meyvis, when asked about his thoughts about that Bloomberg Businessweek article declaring plant-based to be a fad. “Plant-based foods and any other alternative protein-based foods are not a fad; it is a matter of informing people and creating awareness. It is a fact that our food system and our consumption behavior need to be reconsidered, and scientists/industries are investing in finding and proposing alternative solutions to produce protein-based products. When a topic hits the news (positive or negative), it means that the revolution is on. To me, it opens discussions and brings the debate to the table. As a result, it creates opportunities for education.”

A challenging year

Few can argue, though, that it hasn’t been a challenging year for alternative proteins with lower investment activity, some negative press, company closures, etc. But as an analytical partner, Meyvis reports that RIC-resolve doesn’t directly experience the challenges that the alternative food industries might be facing. “From an outsider’s point of view, we do realize that it will be a long time until this new concept of cellular agriculture is fully accepted and integrated,” he says. “Despite the willingness of developing a sustainable food system, as an alternative to classical food production, these industries will have to face lobbying from farming, conventional food industries and political decisions (e.g. Italy’s ban on cultivated meat). Here again informing and educating the target public will be of crucial importance.”

And what are RIC’s biggest challenges as a company? “Convincing people of the right analytics, that it is a great tool to select upfront and aid in the production process,” says Meyvis. “Moreover, as an analytical lab, the samples remain challenging, even though we have a method we often struggle with the matrix, nothing is the same and hence sample preparation procedures often need to be adapted. Choosing the right analytics can result in a major gain of time when applied early in the process. It will also help to convince people of the safety of the final product.”

At The Future of Protein Production LIVE! Conference & Exhibition, Meyvis will explain to delegates a bit more about the company’s innovations, and their applicability for the sector. “I want to highlight the important role of analytical sciences in characterization of novel foods and food ingredients, and the role of analytics in screening and selecting of raw materials. I will explain the benefits of analytics in optimizing and controlling the production process and checking and comparing different batches. You can even monitor undesired compounds (residuals) from start until end product. The complexity of these types of samples need high-level analytics.”

In a very short while, RIC has been able to expand its knowledge and experience in analytics for the alternative food industry, assisting customers by helping them to understand their product better, getting further insight in their production process. “Analytical challenges and sharing of our expertise to work toward a sustainable product is our driving force,” Meyvis says. “We like to go the extra mile, not just providing analytics, but also discuss with customers on the results and next steps. As it is a young market, we feel our know-how and experience is beneficial and can further help out the development.”

Alternative proteins still only account for ~2% of protein sold. Even the very optimistic models still only predict 5% by 2030. How does Meyvis think the industry will shape up by then? “Overall people are creatures of habit,” he concludes. “It takes time to change habits on a large scale. But once the bigger picture is outlined, things can go fast, and adaptation of consumption behavior might be a fact. Conventional food and novel food can go hand in hand, taking the best of both worlds.”

RIC-resolve is exhibiting on Stand 18 at The Future of Protein Production LIVE! Conference & Exhibition. Yves Meyvis will be taking part in a panel discussion, ‘Sourcing the right ingredients and processing technologies to usher in Plant Based 2.0’, while Emmie Dumont, Analytics Group Leader, will be delivering a presentation entitled, ‘In-depth analytical product characterization: a critical tool to develop, optimize and secure the manufacturing process’

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

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