An heir to RI deli meats, a $1 million donation to Tufts, and a new way to make meat
“I really think the potential for this industry is so, so huge and so revolutionary,” Dukcevich said in an interview at his home on Providence’s East Side, with a sweeping view of the State House. “The benefits would be amazing.”
His history with the pigs may be difficult, but Dukcevich is proud of the work Daniele has done and hopes the business will continue to be successful. He always eats meat himself. When he visited Daniele’s suppliers, he saw well-treated pigs frolicking around the family farms. But there’s no denying that even happy pigs end up being killed for their meat. And in other parts of the food system, exploitation abounds.
So yes, the $1 million donation to Tufts to help find a way to grow meat without killing animals was indeed in part an act of atonement for Dukcevich, a practicing Catholic. It might still be impossible for anyone not to cry a tearful like “Babe”, but for Dukcevich, it will be fine.
“There’s an element of penance, for sure,” Dukcevich said. “But I think it solves a problem – the problem of suffering and the environmental problems.”
Dukcevich’s donation will fund the research of Professor Tufts David Kaplan. This research does not involve the death of any pigs, cows or chickens. Instead, it involves taking animal cells — by biopsy, not slaughter — and growing them in the lab to make edible meat. Growing animal meat in a flask sounds futuristic. This is currently happening at the Somerville-Medford border in Massachusetts.
“We do it every day here in my lab,” Kaplan said in a phone interview.
Kaplan also recently received $10 million in funding from the United States Department of Agriculture. However, government grants are sometimes prescriptive. Dukcevich’s gift has no strings attached.
“It’s just amazing and invaluable to be able to give students more freedom to do these things that are otherwise hard to find resources to do,” Kaplan said.
If meat grown from cells works, it would mean a seismic shift in the food system. And according to Kaplan, that would mean being able to feed far more people, with far less environmental damage and without unnecessary culling.
“In principle, the domain we’re developing should be much more isolated from all of these issues,” Kaplan said. “Food should be fresher, safer, healthier and available.”
Kaplan sees a future where you could walk into the supermarket and be able to choose between farm-raised meat and lab-grown meat, the same way you can now choose an organic brand or meat substitute made from plants.
But lab-grown meat wouldn’t be a substitute: At the cellular level, Kaplan said, it wouldn’t be any different from the shrink-wrapped beef you can buy in the supermarket today. Companies are now trying to develop this technology for commercialization, Kaplan said, and federal regulations are expected to be issued this year on things like labeling.
One obstacle, Kaplan said, is cost. He must leave the laboratory and enter the factories. There are companies that say they can do it. But can they scale it? If you take the boosterism out of the industry, can it really work?
That’s part of what Dukcevich’s gift will help Tufts lab understand.
Dukcevich graduated from Tufts, but he did not study science. He studied history. And he enjoys telling the story of his family’s ham empire, which began in the aftermath of World War II.
In 1945, his grandfather was a prosperous Croat in a small village in what was then Yugoslavia. When Josip Broz Tito took power, the family fled to Trieste, Italy. Grandfather Stefano had sold all of the family’s possessions for what turned out to be counterfeit pounds. They had nothing. Grandma Carolina got a job making sausages and Stefano was riding his bike selling it. The sausage isn’t really Croatian, nor is the charcuterie, but it was a classic immigrant story: take every opportunity you can.
The Dukceviches became more involved in the business, which grew and expanded into other meats. Eventually they took it back. One day, Davide’s grandfather took Davide’s father, Vlado, on a trip to the countryside to show him something: a new factory where they would make prosciutto. It was in the village of San Daniele, Italy.
In the mid-1970s, the irrepressible Vlado had the idea to branch off what would become the Daniele Empire to America and chose Pascoag, RI as his home base. The state had just lost the Quonset military installation and was prepared to try and attract new business, even eight-person groups like a deli maker. The plan was to return to Italy after a few years. Instead, they stayed: Davide Dukcevich was born in Italy but grew up in Rhode Island, spending his childhood a mile from the factory, where he played hide and seek in the prosciutto rooms.
After graduating from Tufts, Davide Dukcevich worked as a journalist, notably for Forbes. It was then that he had the reply of his father, always irrepressible, like the non-smart Logan Roy of the charcuterie: Do you really want to write about other professions? We have a business.
Dukcevich got involved on the sales side. His brother, Stefano, was also involved. The business had exploded in the decades since its arrival in America, which grew from a nation of Wonder Bread and bologna to a country that tasted good food. In the 2010s, they built a new $100 million facility in Pascoag, the “death star” of northwest Rhode Island.
They made mortadella, salame, soppressata, pancetta. What really provided rocket fuel for the company, however, were the snack packs, small containers of high-quality foods – prosciutto, salami, gourmet cheese and breadsticks, sold at places like CVS and 7-Eleven. Daniele is less well known than, say, Boar’s Head, but you can still find him at BJ’s, Wal-Mart, or many supermarkets under brands like Del Duca.
The company had grown so big that the main job was no longer making and selling meat, but mergers and acquisitions. It was a numbers game. They decided to sell to a private equity firm.
Dukcevich and his family, including his wife Alice Berresheim-Dukcevich and their three children, then spent a year in Switzerland. One day he was walking when he heard a podcast about cell farming. Even when he was working at Daniele’s, he had a feeling that seismic changes were happening.
“Wow,” he thought after listening to this podcast. “Maybe that’s the thing.”
He eventually contacted Kaplan at his alma mater and went to check on his lab on the Somerville-Medford line upon his return from Switzerland. The check for one million dollars was cashed recently. Dukcevich called the amount of money meaningful to him, but not one that would significantly affect his family’s financial stability.
In a future that includes lab-grown meat, Davide sees room for family farmers and free-range pigs, but not industrial slaughter. The future, as Dukcevich sees it, also includes Daniele. Scientists like Kaplan can grow it in the lab. It takes people like Stefano and Carolina Dukcevich to nurture and spice it up.
“Hopefully that kicks things off,” Berresheim-Dukcevich said. “And we will help discover something that turns into something real.”