San Francisco, California-based startup Clara Foods announced a partnership with ZX Ventures, the innovation arm of Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev, to realize its ambition of manufacturing animal-free eggs on an industrial scale. While Clara Foods, a leader in animal-free proteins, worked for six years to replicate the taste, function and proteins of eggs without the chickens, scaling the product has been difficult — until now.
“Working with ABInBev will allow Clara Foods to unlock the possibilities of precision fermentation at large scale,” said a spokesperson for Clara Foods. “Clara Foods is working towards a disruptive advance in food technology by developing real animal proteins without the use of a single animal — starting with the world’s first animal-free egg proteins.”
Making Animal-Free Eggs
Using a process called precision fermentation, Clara Foods starts by mixing two simple ingredients: yeast and sugar. Then, it uses yeast engineering and fermentation technologies to design the perfect strain of yeast capable of producing proteins that are identical to those found in eggs.
“We couple advanced biotechnology with precision fermentation to program microbes, creating real egg proteins without using a single chicken — and requiring far less water, land, energy and GHG emissions,” the spokesperson said.
The tailored proteins resulting from this bioreactor process can be used in baking, eaten by themselves as pure protein or used as environmentally-friendly antimicrobials, a product that can kill or slow the spread of microorganisms.
Clara Foods claims its process and the final egg product are more sustainable than its animal-produced counterparts from a life cycle assessment perspective — a method for evaluating environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life cycle of a commercial product, process, or service. Making the animal-free egg accessible around the globe is Clara’s next challenge.
Scaling With the Help of Fermentation Experts
At first glance, the partnership between Clara Foods and AB InBev, a global beer brewing giant, seems unlikely. But the partnership is the first for ZX Ventures’ BioBrew division, a new branch of the innovative sector focused on helping precision fermentation companies scale on a global level. BioBrew will apply the fermentation process and scale mastered by AB InBev to Clara Foods’ precision fermentation process so it can make enough product to compete with proteins from traditional animals.
In order to compete with traditional agriculture, Clara Foods’ facilities will have to be able to produce tens of thousands of metric tons of its animal-free egg per year to be commercially viable. Fortunately for the startup, it won’t have to start from scratch. For some ingredients, precision fermentation is already operating at scale.
But industrial-scale fermentation to make egg and dairy products is breaking new ground. As the world’s largest fermenters, BioBrew, as part of AB InBev, has an understanding of how organisms behave, as well as the importance of process controls. It also has an extensive global footprint, so the partnership should help push Clara Foods’ product to scale and penetrate the mass market.
How Clara Foods’ Egg Differs From Other Egg Alternatives
Several companies have gone down the plant-based egg path, like Eat JUST and EVO that use mung bean and other legumes as their base ingredient. While they try to duplicate the taste and consistency of eggs, they still miss the mark for some consumers.
Clara Foods’ eggs are akin to lab-grown meat in that the company re-creates identical proteins found in chicken eggs in its product rather than trying to replicate the flavors with plant-based ingredients. While its eggs don’t harm animals, there is some debate whether they can still be considered vegan since they contain the same proteins as chicken eggs. The same can be said for lab-grown meat.
“We consider our egg proteins to be animal-free because they are bio-identical to animal-made egg proteins but without using a single animal,” the spokesperson said. “We believe it’s important to distinguish our proteins from plant-based for a couple of reasons. First, unlike many plant-based products, there are no taste or texture trade-offs with our animal-free products — they taste and function like the real thing. Second, because our proteins are bio-identical to their animal counterparts, they are considered an egg allergen and those with egg allergies should not consume our egg proteins.”
How these eggs will be regulated is another question. While the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) share joint regulatory oversight of the cell-based meat industry, perhaps the same will apply to fermented dairy and egg products.
“We believe this new category will continue to gain mainstream traction as more and more people are avoiding animal products, whether it be for health, environmental, or ethical reasons,” the spokesperson added. “We believe that providing animal-free products will become increasingly valuable and attractive to consumers.”
In the meantime, Clara Foods and ZX Ventures intend to scale up, drive efficiency and become a disruptor in the egg space.