Is fake meat the future of pet food?

In the US’s food-obsessed landscape, the quickest route to a new idea is to look for something already being done – and then make it vegan. Wild Earth, a start-up based in Berkeley, California, is doing that to pet food with laboratory-created proteins. Translated, that means fake meat for Fido.

The stakes are far from small potatoes. Sixty-eight percent of Americans own four-legged friends – a paw-dropping 184million dogs and cats.

To feed this mass of tail-wagging companions, they spend almost $30-billion (about R358-billion) annually. Pet food – predominantly animal-meat products – represents as much as 30% of all meat consumption in the US.

According to a first-of-its-kind study on how that sweet black lab on the kitchen floor affects the environment, Gregory Okin, a professor in the geography department at the University of California, LA, writes that if American pets were to establish a sovereign nation, it would rank fifth in global meat consumption.

That nation of dogs and cats consumes about 19% as many calories as humans, but because their diets are higher in protein, their total animal-derived calorie intake amounts to about 33% that of humans.

“If you’re feeding your large dog the same as you, your dog is eating more meat than you are,” said Dr Cailin Heinze, a Tufts University faculty member and board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

Food consumption by dogs and cats is responsible for releasing up to 64 million tons of greenhouse gases every year. Developing fake meat for pets may help put a dent in that, as well as the use of water and land needed to breed all that livestock.

In doing so, the industry might pave the way towards replacing the real meat in your fridge too.

As the global human population approaches eight billion, said Ron Shigeta, one of the founders of Wild Earth, “the opportunity here is to create something that is safe and sustainable”.

First, they’re starting with pets. With $4-million in seed money, Wild Earth hopes to be the first pet-food brand based on cellular agriculture.

In 2013, Shigeta and co-founder, Ryan Bethencourt, started Berkeley Biolabs, followed by Indie Bio – a synthetic biology accelerator – before getting into pet food, which, like products for human consumption, has tilted ever more towards higher nutritional value.

Turning to fungus

The initial product Wild Earth plans to sell from its direct-to-consumer website is a koji-based dog treat.

Koji is a fungus, the Japanese version of baker’s yeast. That’s a lucrative choice, apparently, since the American Pet Products Association said dogs were given more treats than any other pet species. Market research firm Kerry reports that 34% of new product development for pet food last year was in treats.

Bethencourt compares his company’s production of “clean” protein to that of Japanese rice wine sake – imagine giant fermentation tanks – right down to using the same ingredient to fuel its protein growth.

Koji grows rapidly inside tanks, along with sugar and nutrients, at the right balmy temperature. The result is a plant-based protein with a close match to eggs or animal-based meat. Because koji is widely consumed by humans, it already has a GRAS (generally recognised as safe) designation.

Wild Earth’s supply chain is simple – it uses only a handful of ingredients – and easily traceable.

“Now that millennials have officially taken the reins as the primary demographic of pet owners, they stand to further develop the humanisation-of-pets trend,” writes Bob Vetere, the president of the pet products association, in its annual pet survey. A lot of that has to do with the environment and an increased emphasis on nutrition, but that’s not all there is to it.

So far this year, there have been recalls due to listeria, salmonella and pentobarbital contamination.

The JM Smucker Company, which makes Gravy Train and Kibbles ‘n Bits as well as a private-label food for Walmart, had to voluntarily recall its dog food when traces of pentobarbital were found in it. Use of fake meat may obviate risks associated with supply chains that rely on meat scraps.

The pet food space is red-hot. General Mills was so eager to get into it that it paid $8-billion to acquire Blue Buffalo in February. Mars Petcare US recently launched the Companion Fund, a $100-million venture fund to invest in the pet industry.

But for cutting-edge pet food born in the lab, hurdles await. No cellular meat company has yet found a way to create meat from scratch in a scalable, affordable way; 31% of dog and cat owners already complain about the cost of pet food, the pet products association said.

There’s also the “ick” factor of meat made in labs.

With pet food products ranging from offal to insects to alligators, who’s to say vegan can’t join the mix? Bethencourt and Shigeta contend that “cellular agriculture has the unique potential to rebuild the supply chain from farm to table”.

Prof Marion Nestle, author of several books on pet food, is sceptical: “The operative word is ‘potential’. Let’s see how it works in practice.”

Source: Bloomberg

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