Is "Clean Protein" the Next Big Thing in Pet Food?



In an era when pet owners are increasingly gravitating toward meat-first diets for their furry friends, it might seem a bit counterintuitive to bet on animal-free pet foods as the next big innovation in animal nutrition. Yet, there are at least two companies that have been making headlines over the past few weeks by doing just that.


First, there's Wild Earth, Inc., a company that recently drew media attention by gaining major investments from Paypal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and teaming up with established pet food giant Mars Petcare. Led by co-founder and CEO Ryan Bethencourt, the company has created dog treats and dry dog food using koji (Aspergillus oryzae), a fungus used in Asian culinary staples such as soy sauce, miso paste and sake. According to the company, koji is an eco-friendly, renewable protein source that provides all 10 essential amino acids that dogs require, and initial third-party testing showed Wild Earth's cultured protein's high nutritional value and quality. The treats are reportedly due to launch at some point this year, with food line scheduled for release in 2019.


In addition, Wild Earth is also reportedly working on cultured meat from mouse cells, which would be the foundation for nutritional products for cats. However, no timeline seems to have been attached to this endeavor yet.


Cultured meat is front and center in Bond Pet Foods' attempt to innovate the pet food category. The company is working to produce the proteins found in chicken by genetically modifying microbes and then feeding them sugars and other nutrients in a fermentation tank. The resulting harvested protein would reportedly come out in a consistency close to baby food, and would be dried and added to pet food and treat recipes. 


Of course, Wild Earth and Bond Pet Foods' efforts are just two pet-specific applications of what is a much broader movement toward engineered proteins, which is mostly focused on producing food for humans, where companies such as Memphis Meats and The Good Food Institute have already spent years developing "clean protein" production technology. 


Still, I can't help but think that we are years—if not decades—away from seeing "clean protein" diets like those being developed by Bond Pet Foods and Wild Earth making a major impact on the pet industry. First of all, while it would certainly appeal to eco-minded consumers, the idea of replacing the meat in a pet's diet with fungi-based proteins would face quite an uphill climb given the overwhelming momentum that ancestral, meat-first diets have gained with pet owners. And lab-grown "meat" may prove to be a tough sell in a marketplace where non-GMO products are quickly gaining traction.


If "clean protein" sources do end up gaining a significant foothold in the world of human nutrition, there is no doubt we can expect to see a major advancement of the trend in our pet foods, as well—like just about every other nutrition trend you can think of. But for now, it's really not much more than fodder for interesting "what-if" conversations.


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