Futurevores: “Humane” Meat and Other Proteins for Pets Are Coming Soon

With the world focused on developing sustainable sources of protein for an ever-growing population, some innovative biotech companies are concentrating on alternative protein sources for pet foods. As clients concerned about the sourcing of pet foods are discovering these new choices, veterinarians will want to be aware of what is happening in this evolving world of pet food.

CONCERNS ABOUT HEALTH, SUSTAINABILITY, CLIMATE CHANGE, AND ANIMAL WELFARE have pushed food technology companies to develop protein alternatives to conventional meat for consumers. Plant-based options from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, for example, are familiar to many vegetarians, vegans, and “flexitarians,” those who occasionally eat meat or fish.

Now those same concerns are driving biotech companies to focus on protein alternatives to traditional sourcing for pet foods and treats. Some plant- and fungi-based options are already available, and “cultured”—also known as slaughter-free—meat is expected to be among the choices in the next few years.

“Even if you are a voracious meat eater, a growing segment is becoming more conscious of these different challenges and, through their purchases, trying to do their part,” said Rich Kelleman, CEO and cofounder of Bond Pet Foods in Boulder, Colorado.

Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT, a cofounder and chief veterinary officer of Wild Earth, based in Berkeley, California, noted that technological advances have paved the way for meat alternatives in the pet food space.

“We could not have made these meat alternatives 10 years ago,” Ward said. “It would have been too costly. But as we see more plant-based human foods grow, the cost for us comes down. We are just drafting off their advances. If not for companies like Beyond Meat, the price would not be affordable or price competitive.”

As meat alternatives become more prevalent, some are already seeing increased demand from pet owners.

“At least three to four times a week, consumers message to ask when our cultured meat products will be available,” said Shannon Falconer, PhD, CEO and cofounder of Because Animals in Philadelphia. “It is not a matter of if cultured meat will become the new norm—for both people and pets—but rather a question of when.”

Pet Food Advances

Ward said veterinarians need to educate themselves about pet food nutrition and the science behind it so they can address questions from their clients.

“The stakes are too high to ignore nutrition,” Ward said. “Veterinarians can’t rely on old anecdotes that dogs need traditionally sourced meat as the totality. That’s ingredient bias and based on outdated science from 20 to 30 years ago.”

Ingredients are nutrient vessels, he explained. If essential nutrients such as amino acids, fats, and carbohydrates are unlocked when an ingredient is eaten, then the ingredient is serving its purpose.

“People are making decisions and want advice from a veterinary perspective,” Ward said. “It’s such an important discussion. Don’t let nutrition discussions be a victim of hospital culture and the busyness of daily practice: ‘If I start that conversation, it will take an hour and I’ve got 15 people waiting.’ Immunizations, disease prevention, and nutrition are some of the main topics you should be talking about with clients,” said Ward.

“If veterinarians tell a pet owner, ‘Oh, don’t believe that stuff you see on the internet,’ they’re going to be considered irrelevant. These owners are looking at research papers and have access to information like never before. If veterinarians abandon nutrition, that allows other forces, other organizations, and groups not as trained to give advice,” he said. “Veterinarians need to remain a trusted point of information.”

In fact, a new generation of pet owners is taking a highly involved approach to purchasing pet foods and is holding the industry to higher standards for nutrition, safety, sustainability, and transparency, according to the July 2019 US pet food report by Mintel, a global provider of market research. It found that pet owners ages 18–34 are, among other things, open to super-premium pet food concepts, sustainably sourced food, treats that provide added nutrition, and pet food with plant-based protein.

Innovation and Investment

Alternative proteins have been drawing global interest. In a recent press release, the Good Food Institute, an international nonprofit, reported that:

  • Investment in alternative protein companies in the first quarter of 2020 surpassed 2019 full-year totals.
  • US plant-based meat, egg, and dairy companies received $2.7 billion in venture capital investments in the past decade, 45% of which was raised in 2019 and the first quarter of 2020 alone.
  • By the end of 2019, 55 cultivated meat companies had formed across the globe, 20 in 2019 alone.
  • 9 of the top 10 US meat companies have capitalized on the plant-based shift, having launched, bought, or collaborated on a plant-based meat brand by the end of 2019.

The three companies we spoke with—Bond Pet Foods, Because Animals, and Wild Earth—each have drawn the attention of major pet food brands and large investors. Because Animals was the grand prize winner of the 2020 Pet Care Innovation Prize, while Bond Pet Foods was part of the 2019 Innovation Prize Class. The prize is a collaborative effort of Purina’s 9 Square Ventures division with investing leader Active Capital. Mars Petcare, one of the world’s leading pet care companies, has invested in Wild Earth, as has Mark Cuban of Shark Tank fame.

What Are Their Stories?

Shannon Falconer, PhD, CEO and cofounder of Because Animals.

Because Animals

Falconer has a PhD in microbial chemical biology and was working as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University when she decided to leave her academic career to cofound Because Animals.
Falconer said she stopped eating meat for animal welfare reasons in her teens. In her early twenties, she began volunteering with animal rescue organizations. For much of her adult life, her scientific career and work with animal rescue never overlapped—until her eureka moment.

“Being so active in cat rescue, it’s long been an emotional conflict for me that I need to feed my cats other animals in order to keep them healthy,” she said. When she realized she had the know-how to feed her cats culture-grown rather than animal-grown meat, she left Stanford and got working on Because Animals.

While Because Animals already sells products made with traditional cultured ingredients—specifically, supplements containing probiotics and dog cookies made with nutritional yeast—the company’s main focus is on commercializing its first cultured meat pet food product, a cultured mouse cat treat. Last year, they successfully made a prototype using cultured mouse tissue, the ancestral diet of the cat. To move beyond the prototype phase, the company needed its own proprietary cell line, its own mice cells.

The company adopted three mice, humanely took a small amount of skin from their ears, and, from that tissue, is isolating the stem cells needed to grow its revolutionary cat treat, said Falconer. These stem cells give rise to every type of cell in the body so the company can create meat with the full complement of nutrients a pet needs. And, importantly, said Falconer, the mice have a forever home in a handmade hutch constructed by one of the company’s stem cell scientists.

“Our meat is grown without using the controversial fetal bovine serum (FBS),” explained Falconer. “FBS involves the inhumane practice of extracting blood from pregnant cows at slaughter. Because Animals has developed a proprietary medium that provides the nutrients and growth factors needed for tissue to grow, all without the requirement of FBS.”

Cultured meat has the same nutritional value and composition as animal-based meat and it is, in fact, meat, said Falconer. She added that it will be safer than farmed meat as it will be free from antibiotics, growth hormones, pentobarbital contamination, and, with the development of custom screening panels, pathogenic bacteria and viruses.

The company expects to release a limited batch of cultured mouse cat treats in mid- to late 2021, with a cultured rabbit dog treat to follow.

Bond Pet Foods

Rich Kelleman, CEO and cofounder of Bond Pet Foods

Kelleman admits he backed into the idea of having a pet food company. A few assignments during his 25-year career in advertising opened his eyes to the challenges around meat production and made him wonder whether there could be a different way of sourcing key ingredients.

As vegetarians and then vegans, Kelleman and his wife “had wrestled with that tension when it came to feeding our cats and dog. Meat is good for dogs and cats. We didn’t want them to become vegans. We wanted to see a way to produce efficient, responsible, and humane meat.

“I had seen a lot of activity in biotech about recapitulating the meat experience. For humans, it’s about re-creating the taste, texture, and tactile characteristics of meat. For dogs and cats, it’s about creating equal or superior nutrition,” he explained.

By partnering with experts, Kelleman said he is excited to bring new proteins to the world over the next few years. The first offering, a nutritional yeast protein treat bar for dogs, launched in May 2020.

“The protein is the cornerstone of our recipe, so we can educate the public about products made through fermentation. We want to educate pet owners about what it is and how it works. It’s a staged approach to public education about what we are doing and why.”

What is Bond’s approach to cultured meat?

A small blood sample was taken from Inga, a heritage-breed hen now retired to pasture life in Lindsborg, Kansas. The genetic code was obtained from the sample, which allowed one of the many genes to be inserted into food-grade yeast and then grown in a fermentation tank. As the yeast grows, so does the chicken protein, which Inga’s gene codes for, he explained.

That fungal fermentation technology to modify an organism has been used for more than a half century, said Kelleman. Decades ago, it allowed cheesemakers to employ microbially derived rennet and get away from using calf rennet—the enzymes taken from the opened stomach of an unweaned calf.

Chicken will be the first meat product, since it is the most-consumed meat in the world for people and pets, said Kelleman, noting that turkey, fish, and other high-value meat proteins would also be in the company’s portfolio. The goal is to demonstrate products that are equal to or better than traditional ingredients.

Dog foods are the first focus, he said, since the bulk of the pet-food market is dogs, and dog owners spend more than cat owners. The company is scaling up to produce higher volume, with the first line of cultured meat products expected out in 2023.

Wild Earth

Ernie Ward, DVM, chief veterinary officer and cofounder of Wild Earth

Wild Earth launched its first line of meat-free dog food in the fall of 2019. Its formula focuses on koji, a fungal protein similar to yeast, to provide the high protein and fiber that supports a dog’s microbiome, explained Ward, coauthor of The Clean Pet Food Revolution: How Better Pet Food Will Change the World and a vegetarian/vegan for more than 30 years.

“All of our ingredients are generally recognized as safe, and nothing we are using has not been used for many years for animals,” explained Ward. “The fermentation process has not changed. We use the same methods that have been used to make bread or brew beer—just with different outcomes.”
Wild Earth is also working closely with a group in Singapore and expects some of the world’s first lab-grown, cell-based meats to come out of that region, said Ward. He noted that that city-island nation off Malaysia decided 10 years ago it wanted to be food independent and has focused on this technology.

The company awaits clarification of federal regulations before its cultured meat products are available, but Ward expects to see an explosion of growth in the next few years.

A Lot to Keep Up With

Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Georgia, said there are so many pet foods out there—and more coming to market—it is difficult even for a veterinary nutritionist to keep up with them all.

Foods sold as “complete and balanced” must be complete and balanced and must meet Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient profiles for one or more life stages, he explained. The company must declare that the food meets or exceeds these requirements and state the method of verification—the nutritional adequacy statement. Furthermore, as of 2018, pet foods must be Salmonella free.

What then separates one food from another, said Bartges, are these four factors:

  • Ingredients (specific ingredients, where they are sourced from, etc.)
  • The level of certain ingredients (for example, there is no published carbohydrate content for pet food, so carbohydrate content can vary widely as long as the other nutrients meet or exceed the AAFCO profiles)
  • The form (canned, dry, stewed, etc.)
  • How it is processed (heat, air-dried, freeze-dried, etc.)

“The perception by many owners, but even more by veterinarians and veterinary students, is that ‘conventional’ heat-processed kibble and canned foods are the best, Bartges said. “This is an inadequate and unsubstantiated belief. They can be very good but so can other types of pet diets.

Did You Know?

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is not a regulatory agency. It does not authorize, certify, test, or otherwise approve pet foods. Its members are state and federal regulatory agencies, and those members inspect the feed mills and feed manufacturing facilities.

To promote uniform labeling requirements across all states and territories, AAFCO has a set of model regulations for pet food and specialty pet food.

Individual states have the authority to approve animal feed to be distributed in their state under the authority of their state feed laws, according to AAFCO. All states, with the exception of Alaska and Nevada, have established commercial feed laws.

Pet food manufacturers are responsible for marketing a safe, wholesome, truthfully labeled product that conforms with regulatory requirements.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have premarket authority over pet food. However, if the FDA becomes aware of a problem with a product that is in interstate commerce, the agency will investigate and conduct necessary follow-up with the firm directly. In general, ingredients used in pet food must either be approved food additives or be generally recognized as safe. In coordination with state feed control officials, the FDA recognizes ingredients in the AAFCO Official Publication as being acceptable for use in animal food.

Maureen Blaney Flietner is an award-winning writer living in Wisconsin.

 

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/A-Digit, ©iStock.com/sorbetto, ©iStock.com/Surasak Suwanmake; photos courtesy of Shannon Falconer, Bond Pet Foods, and Ernie Ward

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