PROVIDENCE — Davide Dukcevich likes to joke that he made the donation to Tufts University because he wants to be able to watch the 1995 movie “Babe” without crying.
Dukcevich is an heir to a Rhode Island charcuterie fortune, a self-described former ham salesman who used to travel the country with a cooler bag of free samples emblazoned with his family’s company name, Daniele, Inc. Three years after his family sold the business for an undisclosed sum, he is putting a $1 million slice of what he earned making meat toward a new way of doing it: growing it in a lab.
“I really think that this industry’s potential 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 incredible.”
His history with pigs may be fraught, but Dukcevich is proud of the work Daniele did, and hopes the company continue to succeed. He still eats meat himself. When he would go to Daniele’s suppliers, he saw well-treated pigs romping around family farms. But there’s no denying that even happy pigs end up getting killed for their meat. And in other parts of the food system, exploitation abounds.
So yes, the $1 million gift to Tufts to help find a way to grow meat without killing animals was indeed partly an act of atonement for Dukcevich, an observant Catholic. It might still be impossible for anyone not to cry at a tear-jerker like “Babe,” but for Dukcevich, it’ll do.
“There’s an element of penance, for sure,” Dukcevich said. “But I do think that it solves a problem – the problem of suffering, and the environmental problems.”
Dukcevich’s donation will fund research by Tufts professor David Kaplan. That research involves the deaths of no pigs at all, nor cows nor chickens. Instead it involves taking animal cells – via biopsy, not slaughter – and growing them in a lab into edible meat. Growing animal meat in a flask sounds futuristic. It is happening now on the Somerville-Medford border in Massachusetts.
“We do that every day here in my lab,” Kaplan said in a phone interview.
Kaplan also recently received $10 million in US Department of Agriculture funding. Government grants are sometimes prescriptive, however. Dukcevich’s gift has no strings attached.
“It’s just amazing and invaluable to be able to give students more freedom to do those things that otherwise it’s difficult to find resources to do,” Kaplan said.
If cell-cultivated meat works, it would mean a seismic shift in the food system. And according to Kaplan, it would mean being able to feed many more people, with much less environmental harm, and without needless slaughter.
“In principle, the field we’re developing should be much more insulated from all those problems,” Kaplan said. “The food should be fresher, safer, healthier, and available.”
Kaplan sees a future where you could walk around the supermarket and be able to choose between farm-raised meat and lab-cultivated meat, the same way you can now pick an organic brand or a plant-based meat substitute.
But lab-grown meat would be no substitute: On a cellular level, Kaplan said, it would be no different from the shrink-wrapped beef you can buy today in the supermarket. Companies are trying to scale up this technology for commercialization right now, Kaplan said, and federal regulations are expected to come out this year on things like labeling.
One barrier, Kaplan said, is cost. It needs to get out of the lab and into factories. There are companies that say they can do this. But can they scale it? If you clear away industry boosterism, can it actually work?
That, in part, is what Dukcevich’s gift will help figure out at the Tufts lab.
Dukcevich is a Tufts grad, but he didn’t study science. He studied history. And he enjoys telling the history of his family’s empire of ham, which began in the wake of World War II.
In 1945, his grandfather was a prosperous Croatian in a small village in what was then Yugoslavia. As Josip Broz Tito took power, the family fled to Trieste, Italy. Grandfather Stefano had sold all the family’s possessions for what turned out to be counterfeit British pounds. They had nothing. Grandmother Carolina got a job making sausage, and Stefano would go around on his bike selling it. Sausage isn’t really Croatian, nor is charcuterie, but it was a classic immigrant story: grabbing whatever opportunity you can.
The Dukcevichs got more involved in the business, which grew and spread into other meats. Eventually they took it over. One day Davide’s grandfather took Davide’s father, Vlado, on a road 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 got the idea to branch off what would become the Daniele empire in America, and picked Pascoag, R.I. to settle in. The state had just lost the military installation at Quonset and was willing to try to lure new companies, even eight-person outfits like a cured-meat maker. The plan was to go back 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 away from the factory, where he’d play hide-and-go-seek in the prosciutto rooms.
After graduating from Tufts, Davide Dukcevich worked as a journalist, including for Forbes. That’s when he got the talk from his dad, still irrepressible, like the non-malignant Logan Roy of cured meats: Do you really want to be writing about other businesses? We have a business.
Dukcevich got involved on the sales side of things. His brother, Stefano, was also involved. The business had boomed in the decades since its arrival in America, which was going from a nation of Wonder Bread and bologna to a country that had a taste for gourmet. In the 2010s, they built a new $100 million facility in Pascoag, the “Death Star” of northwestern Rhode Island.
They made mortadella, salame, soppressata, pancetta. What really provided the rocket fuel for the business, though, were the snack packs, small containers with high-quality food – 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 it at BJ’s, Wal-Mart, or plenty of supermarkets under brand names including Del Duca.
The company had gotten so big that the main job wasn’t making and selling meat anymore, but mergers and acquisitions. It was a numbers game. They decided to sell to a private equity firm.
Dukcevich and his family, including wife Alice Berresheim-Dukcevich and three kids, then spent a year in Switzerland. He was on a walk one day when he heard a podcast about cell-grown agriculture. Even when he was working at Daniele, he had a sense that seismic changes were coming.
“Wow,” he thought after listening to that podcast. “That might be the thing.”
He eventually connected with Kaplan at his alma mater, and went to check out his lab on the Somerville-Medford line when he got back from Switzerland. The $1 million check cleared recently. Dukcevich called the amount of money meaningful to him, but not one that would meaningfully affect the financial stability of his family.
In a future that includes lab-grown meat, Davide sees room for the 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 a lab. It takes people like Stefano and Carolina Dukcevich to cure it and spice it.
“Hopefully, this is kicking things off,” Berresheim-Dukcevich said. “And we’ll be helping discover something that grows into something real.”
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.