Kikkoman Biochemifa Company is a member of the Kikkoman group that handles bio-chemical products. The hygiene monitoring test kit “LuciPac” uses plastic material “petroleum-based polypropylene” which must be disposed of every measurement. Starting early September 2023, Kikkoman Biochemifa Company has announced that they will be replacing the petroleum-based polypropylene to 100% biomass-based polypropylene using the mass balance approach. Compared to consumer goods, B-to-B products are less likely to be recognized by society even if they are promoted for their environmental-friendly aspects. In this interview, we aim to explore the reasons behind their decision to prioritize environmental compliance in a B-to-B context.
Detect invisible dirt with a quick quantitative inspection test.
“Invisible Dirt" The term seems like a riddle, but for those of us who have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems to be something we can understand sensibly.
For example, in food factories, thorough hygiene control is essential to prevent foodborne illness, but of course, bacteria that causes foodborne illness are invisible to the naked eye. The countermeasure is to maintain a clean sanitized environment by cleaning and washing thoroughly without fail. However, the quality of the sanitized environment cannot be judged by appearance alone.
Mr. Kazuki Shiga from Kikkoman Biochemifa Company says,
“Therefore, a product was needed that could determine whether or not contamination was actually present in accordance with a reliable measurement method. Initially, our products were mainly used in food factories, but now they are widely used in restaurants, hospitals, hotels, hot bath facilities, schools, house cleaning, etc."
The hygiene monitoring test kit “LuciPac” manufactured by Kikkoman Biochemifa Company follows very simple steps.
1. Remove the swab from the holder and by using the tip of the cotton, swab the inspection point.
2. Put the swab back in the holder and insert the tip of the swab.
3. Use the swab to break the aluminum lip and mix the liquid reagent with the powder reagent.
4. If there is dirt=ATP on the cotton swab, reagent will react with the dirt and emit light. The dedicated measuring instrument “Lumitester Smart” measures the intensity of the light and numerical value is determined.
It takes about 20 seconds from swabbing the surface to determining the measured value. ATP in the order of tens of femtomoles can be detected with this easy-to-use system. “Femto" is 10 ^-15. The common term “micro" is 10 ^-6. “Nano" is also10^-9. In other words, it is by far the most sensitive test kit.
Shiga: “I don’t think there is any other solution in the world, besides ATP Testing that can easily detect dirt with this level of sensitivity”.
Test kits offered by Kikkoman Biochemifa Company. On the left is a "LuciPac" containing reagents, and on the right is the "Lumitester Smart," which quantifies test values. The "Lumitester Smart" is a machine that quantifies ultra-faint light that cannot be detected by the naked eye. Like a camera, it has a built-in shutter and a light-receiving body (photodiode) under the shutter.
Biotechnology cultivated through soy sauce production that led to developing the biochemical business.
Kikkoman is a well-established soy sauce manufacturer. Why does a biochemical business exist in this company? The key to the answer lies in the knowledge of fermentation and microorganisms that were required in soy sauce production.
Shiga: “Soy sauce is made through the fermentation of microorganisms, mainly aspergillus. That is why research on microorganisms was indispensable for our company. In a modern sense, it is biotechnology. Kikkoman has long been conducting research on using microorganisms to create useful products other than soy sauce. For example, the enzyme that makes fireflies glow. Fireflies use an enzyme to make their tails glow, and our research was to have microorganisms produce many of these enzymes for industrial use”.
This firefly story is, in fact, very much related to LuciPac.
In the previous method mentioned in step 4、ATP is a substance that is a source of energy. When animals engage in any form of activity, they break down ATP to extract energy from it. This applies to both humans when they move their bodies and when they use their brains.
Mr. Kazuki Shiga, Manager in charge of hygiene testing products, Marketing and Planning Group, Kikkoman Biochemifa Company
Shiga) “This applies to all living things. Dirt is basically organic matter, such as food residues and microorganisms, and there is almost always ATP present. In other words, this ATP is an indicator of contamination.”
Let us return once again to fireflies. Fireflies also consume ATP as an energy source to make their tails glow, and at this time, they combine the enzyme luciferase with ATP to emit light. The intensity of the glow depends on the amount of ATP.
Shiga) “In other words, if we had luciferase, we could quantitatively measure ATP. Therefore, Kikkoman's gene cloning technology (in which firefly genes are recombined and microorganisms are made to produce firefly enzymes) made it possible for the first time in the world to mass-produce luciferase”.
To extract enough luciferase from the fireflies to conduct the ATP test, several dozens of fireflies are required. However, it became possible to produce a large amount of luciferase using microorganisms without the need for this, and in 1990, it was released as a testing reagent for detecting ATP. In 1998, handy type ATP testing kits were also introduced.
The product name "LuciPac" takes its "Luci" from the enzyme "luciferase" found in fireflies. It originates from the Latin word meaning "light," which is associated with bioluminescence.
A few dozen of milligrams is the essence of Kikkoman Biochemifa Company’s technology. This powder contains luciferase.
Why Kikkoman Biochemifa Company adopted the mass balance approach?
The Kikkoman Group is committed to the effective use of resources and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in harmony with the global community, and in the 1990s, the group established an Environmental Principles and has been working as one team.
Ohama) “Therefore, there was an internal momentum that environmental issues should be addressed, even if it is a B-to-B product that is difficult to reach the average consumer,"
Of course, there must have been a management decision that being the first to respond to environmental issues ahead of competitors should resonate with global companies in Europe and the U.S., which are highly concerned of environmental issues.
On the other hand, because the "LuciPac" is designed to detect trace amounts of contamination, it cannot be reused, and a new test swab must be used each time. Moreover, although this product looks simple at first glance, it has a very complicated shape.
The shape is meticulously calculated for ease of use. Thin disk-shaped parts measuring less than 0.1 mm are placed at multiple locations on the node.
For example, a single disk like the one in the photo must be less than 0.1 mm thick. Each part has its own design intent and is highly intricate. It was challenging to create them with other materials like biodegradable polylactic acid (PLA).
Mr. Yasuo Ohama, Group Manager, Marketing and Planning Group, Kikkoman Biochemifa Company
Shiga) “I was in the midst of all this when I heard that ITOCHU Corporation had started handling biomass polypropylene using the mass balance method, and immediately contacted them. I remember it was October 2020. Quality of biomass-based polypropylene through mass balance approach is equal to conventional petroleum-derived polypropylene. So, we thought that if the material remained the same, we could make the same product, and the conversation proceeded smoothly".
［What is the Mass Balance Approach?] Mass Balance – ISCC System (iscc-system.org)
On the other hand, Kikkoman Biochemifa's efforts to leverage the mass balance approach in using biomass plastics were led by Mr. Miyake and Mr. Takahashi from Itochu Energy and Chemicals Company. Here, we will inquire with both of them about the advantages of adopting the mass balance approach once again.
Mr. Kosuke Miyake, Synthetic Resin Materials Section, Plastics Department, Energy & Chemicals Company, ITOCHU Corporation
Ms. Tsubasa Takahashi, Synthetic Resin Materials Section, Plastics Department, Energy & Chemicals Company, ITOCHU Corporation
Miyake) "In the mass balance approach, plastic resin manufacturers can efficiently produce the required amount of biomass based plastic using existing facilities. The material properties remain identical to conventional petroleum-based plastics, and there are various grades available, making it easy to choose the one that suits your needs."
Takahashi) “In this day and age, transparency is required not only in the value of the product itself, but also in the entire process of making the product. With the mass balance approach, everyone involved is subject to the necessary audits. In other words, from the standpoint of traceability, the mass balance approach is the best solution for the current situation”.
Kikkoman Biochemifa Company also attracted attention to switch to 100% mass balance system from the beginning, instead of implementing less than 100%. This is probably due to the cumulative efforts that have been made over the past three years since 2020 to prepare for this change.
Shiga) “It is possible to use only a few portions of the raw material that is 30% or 50% mass balance approach. However, when we decided to adopt this method, we had already decided to stick with 100% conversion. This was our Kikkoman group's ideal, so there was no room for compromise”.
In response to Mr. Shiga's statement, Ms. Takahashi continues
“We are frankly delighted that the biomass-based plastics through mass balance apporach have been adopted for use in food safety hygiene monitoring kits. We believe that it will make a significant contribution to one of the goals of the SDGs, which is to combat climate change, as well as other food-related goals."
Kikkoman Biochemifa Company is creating world-class products backed by a high level of environmental awareness. Equally beautiful predicts that the fact that the company will begin using biomass-based plastics through mass balance approach in its products will surely be a major turning point for the industry. As Ms. Takahashi of points out, this will be a good opportunity for biomass-based plastics through mass-balance approach to be widely accepted in the food industry as well, and to gain more and more trust from society.
Above all, the impact of a traditional, well-established Japanese brand like Kikkoman implementing this method, recognizing its superiority, and commercializing it cannot be overlooked. I believe that the number of companies that handle biomass plastics using the mass balance method will increase at an accelerating pace. That is what we are thinking.