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Cold glass of cowless milk — holy cow!

By Judith Segaloff

The Rehovot-based Remilk company, which develops and manufactures dairy protein without animal involvement, has been approved by Israel’s Health Ministry.

Noga Sela Shalev right, CEO of OurCrowd’s food tech incubator Fresh Start, in the laboratory.

This regulatory milestone paves the way for Remilk’s non-animal dairy products to be marketed and sold to Israeli consumers.

It also positions Israel as one of the pioneering countries in providing dairy products that are cow-, lactose- and cholesterol-free and devoid of antibiotics and growth hormones.

I asked Alex Shandrovsky, an adviser for early-startup accelerators in the food tech industry, “why is Israel pouring so much money into cell- and plant-based protein development?”

Why has Israel become a hub for food technology?

Recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly tasted a grouper filet constructed on a 3D printer.

But, why do we need to recreate food? Why can’t a glass of milk simply be a glass of milk? The kind we get from a cow.

Investment in Israel’s food tech sector has increased from $53 million in 2015 to $866 million in 2021.

The sector encompasses nutrition, cultured meat, new ingredients, alternative proteins, packaging and food safety, processing systems, retail, restaurant tech, health and wellness.

Israel, with the second-most food technology companies after the US, hosts more than 100 alternative protein companies. Forty percent of them are startups.

“In 2050, it is expected that the global population will exceed nine billion people,” says Shandrovsky. “As the population grows, the middle class is expected to grow as well, making the demand for meat and dairy too great to feed it. It all boils down to how to scale the farming to meet the demand.”

According to the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases — part of the National Institutes of Health — approximately 68% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.

In some countries such as Ghana, Malawi, South Korea and Yemen, 100% of the population is lactose intolerant.

Dairy-identical milk proteins

This, says Shandrovsky, explains the necessity for products like Remilk’s, which, unlike plant-based alternatives (soy, oat, almond, coconut), according to the company, produces dairy-identical milk proteins and has developed a patented approach to scalable manufacturing.

This requires fewer resources than traditional dairy and increases efficiency in production without compromising taste, functionality or nutrition, the company says.

According to spokeswoman Barbara Marks, Remilk is safe for people who are lactose intolerant, but not for people who are allergic to dairy.

Countries that don’t have the resources to raise cattle will still be able to access dairy.

Remilk in April became the first company to secure regulatory approval for non-animal milk protein in Israel. It has raised more than $130 million and signed deals with leaders in the global food industry.

Last year, the company, which is already producing its protein at industrial volumes in facilities around the world, announced an agreement with the Central Bottling Company (CBC Group), the Israeli franchisee of Coca-Cola and one of the largest food companies in Israel, to launch a line of dairy products made with Remilk’s protein for the local market.

Noga Sela Shalev, CEO of OurCrowd’s food tech incubator Fresh Start, says, “The current methods of producing milk often involve a significant environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming, water pollution from manure and deforestation for grazing land and feed crops.

“Therefore, some alternatives to traditional dairy milk have been developed, such as plant-based milks, lab-grown milk and milk produced by genetically engineered yeast or bacteria.

“While these alternatives are not necessarily ‘natural,’ they can offer a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option for those who want to reduce their reliance on animal-sourced products,” Sela Shalev says.

Ethical food production is a driver for alternative protein innovation, according to Shandrovsky.

“People will look at the result — the meat, the cheese, and as they scrutinize the process they might not feel comfortable with it. And then there is the health component. Now, the only way to keep animals healthy together in a pen is to feed them antibiotics.

“Is it healthy for the animals? Or for those drugs to end up in our bodies?”

Parve steak? Kosher bacon?

Shandrovsky says Israel also has a unique reason for being a leader in new proteins.

As attitudes toward shechita (kosher slaughter) erode around the world, he asks, what happens if kosher meat is banned? Then there are Jews who observe kashrut but may want to enjoy foods such as veal parmesan or bacon, which are not kosher.

The process of creating the new foods may affect the kashrut or dairy-meat status of the foods.

There are three approaches to food innovation in Israels’ laboratories, says Shandrovsky: plant-based alternatives; cell-based alternatives, which use cells or fermentation to create original cells or components to recreate the product; and hybrid products, which use plant-based products plus the elements of cell-based products to create a 70%-plant-based alternative.

Some of the products have received approval from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

“When I go into a lab and I meet scientists producing the solutions, the tools they are using are incredible,” Shandrovsky says. “Measuring how people chew to create the identical mouth-feel of the food. Another process analyzes smell. A third process analyzes the ‘look’ — the texture.”

A supportive ecosystem

Shalev says: 
 “Israel has a thriving startup culture that fosters innovation and risk-taking, which are essential for developing new and disruptive food technologies. Israeli cuisine is known for its fusion and openness to new flavors and food experiences — a fertile ground for experimentation and innovation in the food industry.

“Israel is a world leader in agrotech and biotech, with a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce and a supportive infrastructure for research and development in these fields. This expertise can be leveraged to develop new technologies for food production and processing.

“The Israel Innovation Authority has recognized the importance of food tech early on and has created a supportive ecosystem for early-stage innovation in this field.”

Sela Shalev points out that, while there is an overall slowdown in investment in many sectors, both globally and locally, food tech appears to show a relatively lower decrease. Overall, the outlook for investment in food tech remains positive.

Pre-seed and seed capital rounds are still active in Israeli food tech and continue to attract investment.

While overall venture capital investment has slowed, there seems to be an increased corporate interest in food tech.

Governments also recognize the importance of addressing global challenges such as food security, and providing support and grants to startups and innovators in this field.

Will these food alternatives take off in restaurants and kitchens? And if they do, what will happen to dairy cows and other domestic cattle being raised to end up on our plates?

Said Shandrovsky, “That will be the challenge for the large commercial food producers. Price point and taste will always drive the market.”

He adds, however, that there may always be places like Italy that ban cell-based meat, seeing it as an affront to their culinary heritage.

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