Meat production has an enormous environmental impact and is responsible for approximately 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,1 which is more than all modes of transportation combined. Furthermore, in terms of land use, close to a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded due to livestock. In the US, 41 percent of the country’s land2 (nearly 800 million acres) is taken up by the feed, grazing and confinement of livestock. Pet food plays a large role in those crimes against the planet. A recent study showed that more than a quarter3 of the environmental effects of the animal agriculture industry are directly attributable to the foods that Americans feed their cats and dogs.
In addition to pet food’s massive environmental toll, the manner in which meat is currently produced comes with a whole slew of health and safety concerns for our pets, including:
- Recalls due to bacterial contamination
- Overprocessing leading to loss of nutritional value
- Use of rendered ingredients and ‘fallen animals’ – animals that die before making it to slaughter (ie, from disease, dehydration, suffocation) and therefore are deemed unfit for human consumption
- The development of antibiotic‑resistant bacteria
- Pet food contamination by the euthanising agent pentobarbital.
I’m a biochemist by training. During my PhD I would happily spend my days at the lab bench and my evenings coordinating feral cat TNR (trap‑neuter‑release) and adoptions for social cats who had been abandoned. I didn’t ever think I’d see the day when my passion for both science and animal rescue would merge. However, after I moved to Silicon Valley and worked at Stanford University as a post-doctoral research fellow my perspective changed. I decided that there could be no better use of my scientific training than to direct it towards taking animals out of the food supply chain. Today, my company Because, Animals is the only organisation developing cultured meat for cats and dogs.
What is cultured meat?
Cultured meat is not a meat alternative – it’s 100 percent meat, with the only difference being that it is produced in an alternative way. Instead of raising and slaughtering an animal, we humanely take a sample of cells from an animal and then grow those cells inside a bioreactor through a process very similar to beer and probiotics production.
How do we make our cultured meat?
In a one-time scenario, a small sample of animal cells are collected from an animal, normally from a single biopsy. This is done as humanely as possible and can be considered as equivalent to an ear piercing in a human being.
From that sample, the necessary cells are isolated and fed a nutritious blend of nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, all inside a bioreactor. As those cells consume nutrients, they continue to grow and divide, ultimately producing more cells to yield a larger and larger biomass.
At harvest time, the cells are collected from the bioreactor and blended with other nutritious ingredients to form nutritionally complete foods for cats and dogs.
The advantages of cultured meat are clear: no mass environmental damage, no abusive raising of farmed animals for slaughter, and no risk to public health in terms of zoonotic diseases. And, most important to pet parents, cultured versus traditional animal-based meat means safer and healthier food for cats and dogs.
While we are working on an alternative means to producing meat for pet food, other companies are bringing alternative proteins to market for cats and dogs.
As plant-based diets become increasingly popular with people, their dogs, who are also omnivores, are seeing a rise in plant‑based options too. Common ingredients found in vegan dog foods are whole ingredients, such as lentils and pumpkin, as well as isolated and concentrated plant protein, like soy, pea and potato protein isolate.
Some protein isolates offer complete protein with all essential amino acids (such as soy), but most do not. Usually, a blend of different plant‑based ingredients is required to achieve a complete protein profile.
Another area of growth in alternative protein sources for pets is fermentation products (think probiotics and nutritional yeast). In terms of nutrition, these fermented ingredients contain a variety of naturally occurring microbial proteins that are often complete with all essential amino acids. The microbial cells also contain a range of other nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, which provide additional health benefits.
Insects such as black soldier flies and crickets are also becoming more commonplace. This protein source includes both insects and insect larvae, which are made into insect meal. Although still a form of animal-based protein, the environmental toll of raising insects for food is far smaller than that of traditional animal farming.
Recombinant (or cloned) animal protein is yet another alternative protein source being explored for pet food. This is a single animal protein that is complete with all essential amino acids, which is produced by microbial cells after the gene for that animal protein has been cloned into either yeast or bacteria. If the protein is isolated or separated from the microbial cells after it’s been produced, then protein alone will be the remaining nutrient.
Ultimately, these are all positive steps in the right direction towards easing our reliance on animal agriculture to produce foods for cats and dogs. That said, none of the above provides a source of complete nutrition for pets. It’s important to remember that although protein is the nutrient most talked about, there is a range of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids that pets also require for a nutritionally complete diet.
And here’s the advantage of cultured meat for pets: cultured meat provides not only a source of protein, but all those many other nutrients that are essential for our cats and dogs. Cultured meat is also preferred by most pets in terms of flavour – and anyone who has had dealings with picky cats (ie, all cat owners) will appreciate what an important attribute that is.
About the author
Shannon Falconer is the CEO and Co-Founder of Because, Animals, the only company developing cultured cell-based meats for pets. Shannon holds a Master’s degree in Biochemistry, a PhD in Chemical Biology and has worked as a post‑doctoral research fellow at Stanford University prior to co-founding Because, Animals in 2016. Shannon has spent decades volunteering in the animal rescue community and is a ‘fur mom’ to two amazing rescue dogs, Gaia and Nori.