According to a 2020 report, the global lactic acid market is projected to reach nearly $2,218 million by 2027, up from some $1,070 million pre-pandemic. Experts estimate the market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.6% between 2020 and 2027.
While many industries experienced heavy losses or disruption over the past year due to the pandemic, others—such as the lactic acid market—faced skyrocketing demand for their products. Versatile, eco-friendly, and generally safe, lactic acid is one of those products for which demand has outstripped production.
For food processors, the shortage is concerning. Lactic acid and its derivatives are highly effective in controlling pathogenic bacteria in both fresh and ready-to-eat meat products, such as deli meat and jerky, and thus play an essential role in food safety. Here’s a rundown of the state of the industry and how food processors can navigate the shortage.
Why the Lactic Acid Shortage?
With applications in a wide range of industries, from pharmaceutical to meat and poultry production, lactic acid has been in high demand for many years. It is also a common ingredient in skincare products, cosmetics, and some “natural” disinfectant products and has endless applications in the food and beverage industry, including a role in producing cheese and yogurt, extending the shelf-life of various foods, and assisting with the fermentation process. In the brewing industry, lactic acid is used as an acidulent to increase process efficiency and support proper flavor development. These industries favor lactic acid over other ingredients, as it’s a natural product and is an expected component of the flavor profile of these products.
These uses are just the start of the many applications for lactic acid; it’s also a vital ingredient in bioplastics and packaging, both of which have increased in production in recent years an, in themselves, have countless other uses. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic, in conjunction with the push for more sustainable plastics, has exacerbated the need for lactic acid.
The Role of Packaging Sustainability and COVID-19
Heightened attention to plastic pollution has driven companies around the globe to reduce their reliance on plastics in recent years. Armed with a new awareness of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the growing piles of plastics in oceans and landfills, consumers have started to call for more sustainable practices and packaging, leading in part to increased use and development of bioplastics. Polylactic acid (PLA)—derived from lactic acid—is a critical building block of bioplastics, and researchers anticipate that PLA will reach a market value of $2,091.29 million by 2023, compared to $698.27 million in 2017, according to 360 Market Updates. The growing market value is due to this focus on degradability, as well as new government policies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also heavily influenced the demand for PLA. As the virus began to spread globally, so did the need for PPE—and, therefore, plastics. Consumers and governments began to see plastic less as the enemy and more as a necessary evil as suppliers scrambled to get PPE into hospitals and stores. However, that perception has again shifted with the growing sea of single-use PPE, takeout containers, and plastic bags making it to landfills. As the pandemic slows in the United States and other countries, PPE suppliers are still using petroleum-based plastics in their production of these supplies. But they’re setting their sights on degradable options, as are other producers of single-use plastics.
That’s because PLA-based plastics offer an advantage when it comes to environmental and sustainability initiatives. PLA-derived materials can break down in commercial or industrial composting facilities, unlike petroleum-derived materials, which can persist for hundreds of years.
At the same time packaging and plastic producers are experiencing higher pressures to use more sustainable materials, lactic acid and PLA producers face barriers to meeting the demand for their products. While the spread of COVID-19 has slowed in places like the United States and Europe, lactic acid and PLA producers in countries with more limited access to the vaccine or higher rates of infection may still be facing labor shortages or other pandemic-related issues. The stronger demand, coupled with slowed production, make for a perfect storm in prolonging the lactic acid shortage.
Given the wide range of uses for, environmental benefits of, and production challenges associated with lactic acid, it’s not likely that the shortage will end anytime soon, which means several industries will feel the impact. Food processors, for example, can anticipate an increase in lactic acid prices, making its use uneconomical and possibly forcing changes in their processes. Beef processors in particular can expect to feel some of the burden, as they often use lactic acid as an antimicrobial intervention or pathogen reduction treatment on beef carcasses. To get ahead of the challenge, food and protein processors will want to seek out viable alternatives to lactic acid where they can.
Although lactic acid has proven efficacy against various pathogens, high concentrations can alter a product’s surface, texture, color, or flavor. For example, although beef processors typically treat beef using lactic acid concentrations ranging between 2% and 5%, USDA has now approved up to 10% uses in some processes. Although lactic acid is an organic compound, it is so acidic that it can eat away at rails, concrete, and substructures. It can also make its way into wastewater, which can erode pipes and potentially increase wastewater treatment costs.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to lactic acid-based chemistries on the market. Food processors can use intervention chemistries that include ingredients such as peracetic acid or blends of lactic and citric acids. These blends offer the opportunity to achieve equal—if not greater—reduction of pathogens at lower concentrations when compared with straight lactic acid, reducing the reliance on lactic acid and the potential negative effects of its use.
Food processors that use alternate chemistries can successfully neutralize pathogens and help insulate themselves against the impact of the lactic acid shortage. As demand continues to increase globally, it will remain important for food processors to stay ahead of the changes. Taking advantage of ways to decrease reliance on lactic acid will ultimately save time and money, all while protecting the food chain.
Dr. Owens is director of technical services at Birko Corporation in Henderson, Colo. Reach him at [email protected].