The scientific future of pet food: Leveraging alternative proteins

This article was published in the May 2024 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our May digital edition. 

Like other consumer product sectors, the pet food industry is now a part of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the term being used to describe the rapid technological advancements taking off as you read this. This includes artificial intelligence, precision fermentation and molecular farming, all of which are impacting the future of pet food formulating, specifically protein sourcing.   

Animal protein is in more than 93% of pet food products worldwide, according to the “Vegan Pet Food Market Share and Size 2023” report from The Insight Partners, New York. And according to the peer-reviewed paper “Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats,” which was published on Aug. 2, 2017, in PLOS ONE, if America’s dogs and cats were their own country, their consumption of meat products alone would rank fifth in the world.

“Concerns are emerging within the pet food industry about the long-term availability and reliability of animal protein ingredients, as well as their consistency of specification and sustainability impacts,” said Rich Kelleman, chief executive officer, Bond Pet Foods, Boulder, Colo. “There is a long history around feeding pets animal proteins, creating a significant barrier for many emerging options.

“To successfully replace animal proteins in pet foods, any alternative will not only have to deliver on the fundamentals (nutrition and complete essential amino acid profiles, taste and palatability, and affordability), but also be able to position themselves in a way that’s culturally satisfying,” Kelleman added. “This is why Bond exists: to create a wholly new class of protein for the pet food world. One that’s essential amino acid complete, scalable, and has potential for mainstream adoption.”

 

Putting technology to work

To reduce the pet food industry’s reliance on familiar meat products, such as beef, chicken, turkey and salmon, companies are increasingly relying on alternative protein sources. This includes animal meats not typically consumed by humans, such alligator, kangaroo and rabbit. It also includes insects, namely crickets and black soldier fly larvae. 

Not too long ago, there was a push to get insect protein into human food innovations. Typical American consumers could not get past the “yuck” factor, even though eating insects is common to cultures in many other parts of the world. But because pets enjoy chasing and eating insects when outside, insect protein is slowly carving out its niche in pet food formulating. 

The Bond Pet Foods team

The Bond Pet Foods team, led by Chief Executive Officer Rich Kelleman (far left), recently unveiled its new 15,000-square-foot state-of-the-art Food Lab in Boulder, Colo. 

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Source: Bond Pet Foods

Proteins produced by precision fermentation and molecular farming, often fueled through insights obtained from artificial intelligence (AI), may also find pet food as their entry point into consumer packaged goods. This path to market may assist with building a comfort level with pet parents, who may then be more willing to consume these types of proteins themselves. 

“Humanization in the pet care industry is often mentioned, but the reverse also has potential,” said Ally Motta, pet nutritionist and application specialist at MicroHarvest GmbH, Hamburg, Germany. “We believe that for pet food, pet owners might be more open to trying new ingredients when they can benefit the health of their pets, and indeed, sustainability has been flagged in several reports during the last year as one of the main purchase drivers for premium pet food.”

MicroHarvest produces microbial protein through biomass fermentation. It can be produced in 24 hours from input to output, using agricultural side streams as feedstock.

“Microorganisms are the most efficient protein factories in the world,” Motta said. “They contain over 60% raw protein, and they are produced in bioreactors that can be located anywhere in the world, ensuring a reliable and consistent supply of ingredients, less exposure to weather conditions and supply chain disruptions.” 

Bond uses yeast to make its animal-free protein. The company’s first product, brewed chicken protein, consists of two simple components: a nature-identical protein found in chicken muscle and brewer’s yeast, which is the same strain of yeast used in brewing beer and baking bread. The animal protein provides all key essential amino acids while the yeast contributes B vitamins, beta glucans and antioxidants, as well as a flavor profile that is known to be highly palatable to cats and dogs. To produce this brewed protein, Bond employs precision fermentation.

 

Understanding precision fermentation

While precision fermentation technology has been around for a little more than 30 years, it’s only now being recognized for its potential in feeding the growing population and saving the planet by producing food and food ingredients in a more earth-friendly manner. It’s already used to make a number of food ingredients, including natural flavors, rennet, vitamins and stevia. But recent advancements in cellular agriculture — the process of using precision fermentation to produce genuine animal proteins — are particularly fueling interest and innovation. 

Fermentation without the “precision” has been around forever. That’s how grapes turn into wine and bread rises. Precision fermentation is, as the name suggests, more precise. It’s calculated technology.  

In precision fermentation, bioengineering techniques are used to program microorganisms by giving them a specific genetic code to produce a compound of interest when fermented under precise conditions. The genetic code is the exact copy of the DNA sequence found in a digitized database on an animal or plant DNA sequence; however, it requires no animal or plant involvement. The result is a molecularly identical ingredient made by microorganisms. 

“With precision fermentation, we’re creatively reassembling the process to make high-quality animal protein that can be foundational for pet health,” said Rich Kelleman of Bond Pet Foods.

“With precision fermentation, we’re creatively reassembling the process to make high-quality animal protein that can be foundational for pet health,” Kelleman said. “The format of the ingredient is a fine, ground powder, which allows manufacturers to easily incorporate it into a variety of wet and dry formats.”

Formulation work by Bond’s scientists enabled a 100% replacement of conventionally sourced animal protein with brewed protein while maintaining both nutritional and cost integrity. The tightly controlled precision fermentation process delivers a consistent nutritional profile in every batch. 

“There is little variation in quality due to seasonality, feed, region of origin, or processing conditions, offering greater predictability for pet food formulators and manufacturers alike,” Kelleman said. 

Meatly is doing something similar in the United Kingdom. The company partnered with London-based pet food company Omni to introduce the world’s first cans of pet food made using cultivated chicken as the protein source. 

“This chicken is real meat, just made differently, at our facility in London,” said Owen Ensor, co-founder and chief executive officer of Meatly. “It tastes exactly like the chicken our pets love to eat and crave, but we produce it without having to hurt another animal, and without the environmental damage meat produced via industrial agriculture causes.”

The process involves three simple steps, according to Ensor. First, a small sample of cells was taken from a chicken egg. 

“It was just the one single time,” Ensor said. “After this, we never need to use another animal product in our production, ever. Second, just like making yogurt or beer, we nurture these cells in large containers that control temperature and the pH balance. Finally, we provide all the vitamins, minerals and amino acids the cells need to grow big and strong, until they become delicious, healthy meat. These nutrients are much like those animals consume when eating grass and other types of foliage.” 

BioCraft Pet Nutrition created a cultivated chicken cell protein for pet food

BioCraft Pet Nutrition also created a cultivated chicken cell protein for pet food manufacturers who wish to utilize more traditional protein sources in their formulations. 

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Source: BioCraft Pet Nutrition

Shannon Falconer, founder and chief executive officer, BioCraft Pet Nutrition, Vienna, Austria, explained that another advantage to formulating pet food with such cultivated meat ingredients is that the technology enables customized nutrient profiles and hypoallergenic properties.

BioCraft Pet Nutrition focuses on producing cultivated meat specifically for pet food. Its initiative is grounded in the need to provide pets, especially obligate carnivores such as cats, with the essential nutrients found in meat, but in a way that is environmentally sustainable and humane. 

“Toward this goal, BioCraft began by growing mouse cells — the ancestral diet of cats — inside of a bioreactor that contains all of the nutrients cells need to grow,” Falconer said. “The resulting mouse slurry provides all of the protein, fat, vitamins and minerals as traditional meat, but without the devastating effects of animal agriculture. In addition to mouse, BioCraft has derived a chicken cell line for pet food manufacturers who prefer to offer their customers more conventional meat sources.” 

 

Potential for molecular farming

Just like with animal protein, plant protein production, as well as other plant ingredient production, may benefit from science. Advanced technologies such as molecular farming can be used to produce ingredients for pet food, diverting whole plant nutrition to humans. 

Elo Life Systems, Durham, NC, has a molecular farming platform that produces ingredients that may be difficult to harvest from natural sources and cannot be synthesized through artificial or other techniques. The company produces easy-to-grow crops as bio-factories for these ingredients.

“We’re on a mission to unlock nature’s abilities to make consumers’ favorite foods more delicious, healthy and planet-friendly,” said Todd Rands of Elo Life Systems.

“We’re on a mission to unlock nature’s abilities to make consumers’ favorite foods more delicious, healthy and planet-friendly,” said Todd Rands, chief executive officer at Elo Life Systems. “It’s about making foods more nutrient dense, not calorically dense. We use AI and proprietary algorithms to gain deeper insights across native genomes, genes and traits. Innovation with healthy and sustainable food is desperately needed, and our collective future depends on creating new solutions that do not exist today.” 

The company’s first product is a monk fruit-derived sweetener and will launch in 2026. Rands said the company is also working on the production of varied bio-active ingredients and novel proteins.

 

Overcoming hurdles

Development and commercialization are just two of the hurdles. Putting these proteins into pet foods and treats requires science, too.  

“The challenge around scale for cell-based manufacturing may lend itself to targeting more of a topper-type of product and not be the entire protein source of the final product,” said Sebastian Bohn, sub-market leader for alternative proteins at Kansas City, Mo.-based CRB, a provider of sustainable engineering, architecture, construction and consulting to the food and beverage, and life sciences industries. “Formulation on the plant-based side would be the same as plant-based for humans in that the main production method is still extrusion based. 

“There is also an opportunity for fermented mushroom-based protein,” Bohn added. “The drying technology may be a challenge, depending on if one is manufacturing a dry product compared to a wet pet food one. Another challenge for plant based will be a consistent source of raw material.”  

Bond Pet Foods’ brewed chicken protein

Bond Pet Foods’ brewed chicken protein consists of a nature-identical protein found in chicken muscle and brewer’s yeast, which features a flavor profile that’s highly palatable to cats and dogs. 

| Source: Bond Pet Foods

Additionally, each alternative protein has its own path to regulatory compliance in pet food. 

“Bond’s products are essentially a combination of two known and widely used ingredients — and precision fermentation as a production platform is well known in the food industry. Our regulatory path is straightforward,” Kelleman said. “Working in concert with FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, Bond has charted a path to submitting a GRAS dossier for our brewed chicken protein, which is the first product in line for the US pet food market. In parallel, we are moving through the same process for other bespoke animal protein ingredients, created for our pet food manufacturing partners.”

In the United Kingdom, Meatly is working with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs for regulatory approval, which it believes will be granted in the coming months. As with all protein sources for food and feed, Meatly’s products will be listed on the GB feed register. 

“While development, scale, evaluation and adoption of any new product takes time, a multitude of transformational ingredients are now coming online,” Kelleman concluded. “A new era of innovation in pet nutrition is just beginning.”

Read more about product development, ingredients and formulation.

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