• Brad Glocke

Why Can Bacteria Culture Prices Vary Widely?

Anyone who has searched for pricing on bacterial cultures knows that price can vary widely from company to company. Why is that? Do some companies simply try to squeeze out more margin than others? Perhaps there's something else going on that's a little more benign.

Based on over 70 years of experience as a team sourcing and connecting buyers and manufacturers of bacterial cultures, I can tell you that there are several reasons (20 to be exact) for intra-species pricing discrepancies - and these break-out into 3 main categories or themes: quality differences, business model differences, or regulatory differences.

Quality Differences

1. Differences in Growth Media (Duration, Yield, and Concentration)

The growth media (or broth) that a microbe grows in is a very particular, strain-specific mix of high-quality nutrients.

Between the initial culturing of the strain, the possible seed fermentation, and the final fermentation at-scale, an organism may finish its growth curve somewhere between 12 to 72 hours. This means that an apples-to-apples comparison of one organism taking 12 hours in a fermenter vs. another at 72 hours results in 6 times the amount of fermentation availability... hence the 72-hour fermentation organism may be 6 times as expensive, all-else-equal.

Yet, this isn't quite the whole picture. What also matters is the yield and concentration of the fermentation.

The yield is the amount of bacteria that can be harvested from the fermentation (usually measured in liters or kilograms). On the low-end, a fermentation will yield 2% bio-mass (e.g. this is 20 liters in a 1,000L fermenter) and will improve from there all the way up to a 6% yield. Of course, the more bio-mass that's produced, the lower the price can theoretically be.

Finally, the concentration of the culture effects the price too. Most commercially-viable cultures are standardized at 1E+11 (100 billion CFU/g). To be standardized means that the actual concentration of the fermentation bio-mass needs to be at least at a higher concentration than 1E+11 (e.g. some cultures, such as Enterococcus faecium, Lactobacillus plantarum, or Pediococcus acidilactici can grow to concentrations as high as 6E+11). If you can grow something to a concentration of 6E+11 vs. 2E+11, that means that you can get 3 times as much end-use product out of the same bio-mass, creating the ability to price the bulk culture lower.

2. Differences in the Strain

Microbiologists might select a particular strain based on a metabolite attribute (e.g. what it utilizes or the metabolites it produces) rather than its attributes to be able to simply grow fast, yield well, and concentrate heavily (see above).

Or... perhaps an unstable strain was mis-selected and the resulting fermentations are not where they could potentially be.

3. The Strain is Genetically Modified (GMO)

While this is both uncommon and should be disclosed, there is a possibility that a strain could be genetically modified to respond to a particular nutrient media better than its organic counterpart, creating a shorter fermentation, higher bio-mass yield, or denser concentration.

4. Differences in Downstream Processing

All-things equal, a manufacturer could have different capabilities when it comes to processing the cultures, including centrifugation, freeze-drying or spray-drying (in-house or outsourced), and in grinding and blending, potentially killing-off some of the colonies and finding their counts much lower in the QA/QC process.

5. Differences in Label Guarantee (% "Overfill")

Quite simply, some manufacturers "overfill" against their guaranteed counts (say, 110B CFU/g actual vs. 100B CFUg claimed) in order to be sure that their count-minimums can be replicated by third-party labs.

In some cases, manufacturers will overfill substantially in order to compensate for particular problems with shelf-life and stability (say, 150B CFU/g actual/initial vs. 100B CFU/g claimed). Ultimately, their pricing may reflect the increase (50% in this example).

6. Incorrect Cell Counts

Simply put, the counts for the bacteria could be done using a poor enumeration method for the total cell count or they could be done by not accounting for active vs. dead cells.

7. Co-fermentation vs. Homofermentation

This applies only to blends of several different bacteria.

In most cases - say if you wanted an equal blend of 3 different bacteria species - the manufacturer would pull these individual cultures from their respective production runs, blend them together, and re-verify the correct ratio of each within the blend. This is the right way to do this - using homofermentation (growing one species at a time) and then incorporating it into a blend with others in a similar fashion.

In some cases, however, companies may opt to save resources by growing all of the organisms in a blend in the same fermentation (co-fermentation). In almost all cases, this results in the dominant organism (or the organism that is best adapted to grow within the chosen media) to "take over" the fermentation. Rarely will you every get the same total concentration or ratios you're looking for with a co-fermentation - and yet, growing 3 organisms in a single fermentation is a lot less expensive than going through 3 separate fermentations.

8. Cross-Contamination

While rarer-and-rarer these days, there's the possibility that cell counts may be incorrectly elevated because of a cross-contamination of a highly-concentratable organism (e.g. Enterococcus faecium) with an organism that generally yields much lower counts - like a Lactobacillus acidophilus, incorrectly boosting counts and affecting pricing.

9. Mis-identification

Similar to cross-contamination is the straightforward mis-identification of an organism (e.g. Lactobacillus casei which can generally grow to around 5.0 to 7.0E+11 misidentified as a Lactobacillus acidophilus which can generally grow to around 2.0E+11).

Business Model Differences

10. Custom Fermentation vs. an In-Production Culture

When ordering bulk cultures or concentrates at larger volumes (enough to purchase the total resulting bio-mass from a fermentation - say, 50 kilograms of concentrated culture from a 1,000L fermenter), a manufacturer can choose from pulling the quantities from their regular, in-production runs or to run a custom fermentation on the customer's behalf.

In most cases, the custom fermentation is at the request of the customer (e.g. to grow a particular strain). In these cases, the laboratory will want to test the strain against certain media components in a bench-top fermenter situation - possibly for multiple iterations in order to optimize the nutrient formula.

In these scenarios, the R&D needed is much greater than in a standard in-production fermentation of an in-house strain with known characteristics and nutrient requirements.

This increased R&D resource-demand creates an elevated pricing structure.

11. In-Production Culture vs. Available Cultures

Similar to #6 above, although less common, a manufacturer may list extra strains they have in their bank as available strains versus production strains, only growing the available strain if or when a customer requests the bulk culture.

The resulting fermentation of this custom strain may result in increased pricing due to logistics disruptions and similar media-optimization requirements as described above.

12. Bio-Security Level Premiums (e.g. BSL1 vs. BSL2)

When growing a BSL2 organism (e.g. Streptococcus pyogenes for research into treatments or therapies for "strep throat"), the manufacturing facility will need to have an increased bio-security clearance to grow these classes of organisms.

Understandably, the resource requirements needed will increase the general level of pricing in fixed terms. This would be an example of where a standard genus, Streptococcus, would be subject to higher pricing based on BSL2 level of the species, pyogenes.

Additionally, some manufacturers setup to do custom fermentations of BSL2 organisms may also contract manufacture standard BSL1 organisms (e.g. Streptococcus thermophilus). However, due to their cost structure with BSL2 requirements, the pricing of this common organism may be elevated.

13. Obfuscated Manufacturer or an Unnecessarily Long Supply Chain

Sometimes companies like to make it look like they have their own fermentation facilities and are producing cultures themselves - when in reality, they're simply purchasing the cultures direct from a manufacturer. There will obviously be a mark-up in this situation.

Similarly, there may be a manufacturer of a novel strain (e.g. Nitrosomonas) that sells this organism to another basic manufacturer who adds this to their portfolio of available organisms, who in-turn works with a regional distributor of their organisms, who in-turn hires a local agent to market the strain. This example is obviously dramatic, but it serves the point that the more exchanges that occur within a supply chain, the higher the price will be for the final buyer within the chain.

14. Volume Premiums or Discounts

Some companies will provide price quotes based on minimum order quantities (say, 5 kgs) whereas others will provide a price quote based on an assumption of a higher MOQ or annual volume (e.g. based on orders of 100 kgs or annual volumes of 1,000 kgs).

It's important to compare these and determine where the true and final pricing will sit.

15. Priced Culture Grade

In almost all cases, a culture going into a human industry (e.g. probiotic supplements, yogurt, cheese, or functional foods) will demand a higher per-kilogram price than the same exact culture going into the agriculture industry, for example, where farmers price-out their costs per acre or animal in pennies-per-day, sometimes out to the fourth decimal place.

There are some companies who maintain separate price books depending on grade needed by the customer. In addition, there are whole manufacturers that are "agricultural grade" themselves.

Knowing which type of company you're dealing with and what type of negotiating room there may be is important to understanding difference in pricing in these situations.

16. Margin-Driven vs. Volume-Driven

Quite simply, some manufacturers may focus on low-volume / high-margin fermentations whereas others will focus on high-volume / low-margin runs. If you're dealing with a company that prices based on, say, 1 kg minimum orders and you are looking to order 100 kgs, there may be some room to negotiate - especially if you can commit to sustained orders or with an annual purchase order.

Regulatory Differences

17. Differences in Local Regulations

Local regulations, such as safety requirements and growth media mandates may change the pricing of bacterial cultures.

For example, some safety requirements may suggest extra steps in the process, hence increasing overall costs.

Similarly, changes in industry standards in growth media (e.g. moving from animal-based media to plant-based media) may - and has - affected the individual strain's response to the new media (both in a favorable and unfavorable directions based generally on species).

18. Priced-In Research, Certifications, or Approvals

If a particular strain has been heavily researched by a company, is certified Non-GMO, or has been pre-approved by a particular regulatory body (e.g. OMRI in the U.S. or EFSA in the EU), the resulting costs of business will almost always be priced into the culture's commercial value.

19. Import/Export Premiums

Similar to organisms with priced-in R&D, there may be barriers to import (e.g. Australia) or export (e.g. EU / EEA). The added costs of gaining access to these markets vary greatly and may affect the price needed to make economic sense.

20. FOB / Shipping or Tariff and Duties Nuances

Some companies like to price their organisms with freight included (e.g. CIF pricing: cost + insurance + freight) while others quote solely based on the organism price. This can obviously skew the pricing presentation of an organism.

Additionally... import, duty, and tariff considerations are unlikely to be priced into a quote (or possibly can't be). These costs too, while maybe not affecting the direct price certainly affect the overall price (e.g. getting an organism within your country for $350/kg may actually be more economical in the end than getting the same strain imported for $275/kg).

Final Thoughts

In the end, a company first needs to know what they're truly needing out of a bacterial culture: Is it high-concentration? The lowest price? The fastest lead-time? The best stability and shelf life? A highly-researched and marketable strain? Particular market access?

Once this is determined, then the search can begin knowing what the requirements are for a particular bacterial culture from the final partner.

Having access to over 4,000 strains worldwide with over 150 in-production, we are able to screen against these criteria for our customers, getting them the best price, personalized service, and saving them huge amounts of wasted time.

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MicroSynergies® LLC is a privately held United States company, specializing in the procurement, formulation, and contract fermentation of beneficial organisms including bacteria, yeasts, and fungi for use in human, animal, agricultural, and industrial applications.

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