Soon, your pet dog might be eating vegan food—all engineered in a lab, and purporting to be healthier for them.
But is it true?
Wild Earth, a biotech startup in Berkeley, Calif., certainly thinks so. The company is preparing to launch vegan pet food engineered at the molecular level this summer, thanks to a $4 million initial investment. The vegan dog treats are made from cultured cells of koji, a fungus (Aspergillus oryzae) traditionally used to ferment soy sauce, miso and sake.
“I think people understand that there's a lot of potential for innovation in the pet food space, and it's a market where, as people are able to afford it, they buy better for their pups, for their family members,” CEO and co-founder Ryan Bethencourt told The Daily Beast.
Bethencourt and co-founder Ron Shigeta, Chief Science Officer, are no strangers to the clean meat movement. While working at biotech accelerator IndieBio, they funded cultured meat companies like Memphis Meats and Finless Foods.
The two shifted their focus to pets about a year and a half ago when Bethencourt, a self-described “ethical vegan” who fosters dogs for a rescue organization, felt conflicted about feeding the animals meat. He was also growing increasingly concerned with the quality issues of some commercial pet foods. (He pointed to the recent recall of dog food tainted with pentobarbital, a chemical sedative used to euthanize animals, as proof his concern was justified.) He wanted to conceive of a vegan alternative.
“I remembered Ron making his own koji sauces and other things over the years. And, I was like, ‘This could be it’ … The koji itself is about 50 percent protein, which is really high. It's equivalent to a good steak,” he said. “I was wondering, ‘Instead of using it for flavorings, could we grow koji as a primary protein source?’”
The answer turned out to be yes. Today Wild Earth scientists add beet sugar and a touch of farm-based fertilizer (“for protein production”) to koji in a liquid bioreactor.
“Think about brewing beer. We use a slightly more sophisticated technology, but that’s basically what we’re doing to produce the protein,” Bethencourt said. “The fungi divides and turns the sugar that we put in into koji. The cells divide, and we get more and more koji cells, and eventually we have kind of a thick, ketchup-like sauce, which we pull out and dry out.”
That cultured protein is then baked into gluten-free dog treats using buckwheat or chickpea flour. Bethencourt said there will be a limited release this June in California farmers’ markets to allow time for feedback from pet owners, followed by online sales by the end of summer. So far, about 40 pet dogs have sampled the product; Wild Earth does not test on laboratory animals, instead working with pets of volunteers for taste-testing.
And that's not all. Vegan dog kibble created with the same technology will have vitamins added to meet regulatory requirements, and is scheduled to hit the market at the end of 2018. It will cost $20-$30 for a 5-lb. bag, a price he anticipates will drop to be competitive with major brands as production increases.
While Bethencourt expects some resistance from consumers used to meat as an ingredient in pet food, he said dogs are omnivores. He cited a 2013 study that indicated 10 canine genes mutated to allow increased starch digestion as part of domestication. Additionally, he said koji might have digestive benefits for dogs.
“We're actually going to write a white paper and put that out there, but there appear to be digestion benefits, and there may be a probiotic benefit,” Bethencourt said.
He said Wild Earth is concerned with pet nutrition, and that veterinarian Ernie Ward, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, is Chief Veterinary Officer. Bethencourt thinks the company’s products could provide a safer alternative for home cooks.
Vegan diets are often used by humans to try to get healthier, or deal with digestive issues. Could the same be true of pets?
Maybe—but it could be dangerous. Cailin Heinze, MS, VMD, is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University. She said the increased attention to potential health, environmental, and animal welfare benefits of vegan and vegetarian diets for people could lead to issues when dog and cat owners try to make their own pet food at home.
“Home-prepared diets in general are often problematic because very few that are developed by pet owners or obtained from the internet or books actually meet nutrient needs,” Heinze told The Daily Beast. “I have personally seen quite a few very sad cases of life-threatening health problems caused by unbalanced home-prepared diets. Meat-free home-prepared diets tend to be even riskier because they are usually deficient in protein and essential amino acids as well as all the nutrients typically low in an inappropriately supplemented home-prepared diet that does use meat.”
While dogs are omnivores, cats are by necessity carnivores. (For instance, cats deficient in taurine, an amino acid found only in animal-based protein, can develop heart disease.) So Wild Earth is developing clean meat for cats by culturing the cells of mice. Bethencourt said mouse meat was an obvious choice not only because cats instinctively prey on mice but because the rodents have been the focus of so many lab experiments.
“We have, probably, more data on mouse cells than almost any other species, including humans. So it's a really great starting point from a cultured meat perspective,” he said. “Maybe eventually with enough insights, and enough information and data, we might be able to bring those innovations to humans as well.”
Several U.S. companies are already working toward that goal. The Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit founded in 2016 in Washington, D.C., supports development of plant-based and clean meat alternatives for human consumption.
“JUST (formerly Hampton Creek Foods) says they will have a product in a high-end restaurant by the end of 2018. Companies like Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat expect to have products out within five years,” said Matt Ball, senior media relations specialist at GFI.
He told The Daily Beast that the release of Wild Earth products for pets probably won’t affect clean meat’s success in the market, but will have a significant positive impact on the pet food industry and the environment.
Time will tell as to whether these products will benefit pets themselves. While Heinze, the veterinary nutritionist, emphasized that she could not comment on any specific product, she said in general, she is unaware of any toxicity issues related to feeding dogs mushrooms or other fungi that are safe for people to eat. She said the nutritional safety of mouse meat and other non-standard ingredients would need to be tested, and that pet owners should talk to their veterinarian if they are interested in feeding less typical diets to their pets, such as meat-free—and to consider more frequent veterinary visits to catch any potential problems early.
“It may turn out that vegan diets have benefits for dogs, or we may realize a few years down the road as they become more popular and more dogs eat them that we’ve not been doing the dogs any favors,” she said. “Either way, pet owners considering this feeding strategy should consider the risks and keep in mind that their dog will be a bit of a guinea pig until we have more data.”