Last month, cultivated meat — chicken, to be exact — debuted at a restaurant in the United States for the first time. But the human beings sitting down at eateries aren’t the only customers being targeted by this nascent industry. There’s another group of meat-eaters that might just be key to launching cultured meat into the mainstream: pets.
Creating a cultivated meat substitute for pet food would be more climate-friendly, more ethical and possibly even healthier for our furry companions. Pets can develop allergies to the proteins in their food — often chicken, beef and lamb — but cultivated meat has an advantage: it doesn’t have to source from traditionally farmed animals.
It’s an advantage in a number of ways, says Dr. Shannon Falconer, the CEO and founder of Biocraft Nutrition, a leading cultivated meat pet food company. Pet food is “a major crutch of the meat industry,” says Falconer, which is why the company is betting on cultivated pet food to really “move the needle.”
Pet Peeves with Pet Food
Many pet lovers may not realize the climate damage their companions’ kibble can cause, but pet food is in fact unsustainable. American cats and dogs eat one-third of all meat consumed in the U.S. and are responsible for 64 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions.
Meat-based pet food is derived from animal agriculture — specifically, the leftover parts of animals: organs, bones, tallow and the like. Meat lobbies prefer the word “recycling” and claim that pet food is actually a sustainable option, helping use up leftovers from processing plants. Says Falconer, “These ‘scraps’? [They sustain] animal agriculture as we know it.”
“Rendering” (aka using leftover parts of animals killed for human consumption to make food for pets) is best thought of as a co-product. While it sounds more sustainable in theory, it is truly an independent industry with its own environmentally detrimental processing plants, and tens of billions of dollars of revenue every year. Even the meat industry lobby refers to the two industries as “closely-knit.” Reducing consumption of meat-based pet food, then, would reduce the power of the meat industry and potentially mitigate their massive impact on the environment. Environmental researchers point to alternative proteins like Biocraft nutrition as a potential solution.
Pet food is also a moral conundrum for many vegans and vegetarians, who may ask themselves: Is it ethical to buy products from the animal agriculture industry to help the life of one companion animal? Animal lovers are torn on the question, with some questioning the right to own animals at all, and others saying that pets’ lives should always be prioritized.
While research shows that dogs can thrive on a well-planned meat-free diet (and may even live longer than meat-eating dogs), most dog owners are reluctant to only give their dogs plant-based options, for fear of nutrient deprivation. And, unlike dogs, most vets recommend that vegans and vegetarians feed their cats at least some portion of meat.
Cultivated meat would represent the perfect solution to this dilemma, especially for cat-owners: all of the nutrition, none of the animal suffering. Cultivated pet food would also avoid other nasty disadvantages of animal agriculture: the massive antibiotics use and fecal contamination in rendered pet food chief among them.
According to Falconer, cultivated pet food would solve nearly all of these problems. The challenge, then, is getting it to market.
A Pathway Riddled with Obstacles and Opportunities
In many ways, the obstacles facing cultivated meat pet food are nearly mirror opposites to the ones facing cultured meat for human consumption.
Upside Foods and Good Meat have already passed regulatory approval in the United States, and more cultivated meat companies are filing applications, hoping to follow in their footsteps. But surprisingly, cultivated meat pet food will be more difficult to pass regulation than cultivated meat for humans. “Pets eat the same food day in and day out,” says Falconer, explaining that the homogeneity requires pet food companies to pass more stringent checkpoints than human food.
In the United States, Biocraft will need to curate their ingredient list to closely match the recommended set of ingredients curated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Falconer says they are already in talks with the FDA, and have identified a pathway to regulation. In the EU however, the pathway isn’t quite as clear, which is common for the 27-country conglomerate.
Any cultivated meat product in its early days will fetch quite the price tag too — there’s a reason the first U.S. restaurant to serve cultured chicken has a Michelin star. With current processes, cultivated meat would cost around $30 per pound, nearly four times the cost of slaughter-based beef. Not exactly a bargain.
While expensive, the price tag is intuitive; the companies need to earn back their R&D costs while scaling up their supply to create something affordable. It’s unclear how long the cultivated meat industry will need to become price-competitive. It is estimated to reach price parity around 2030 and, if all aspects of production are optimized (which is not guaranteed), cultivated meat may eventually become four times cheaper than beef. The challenge will be whether cultivated meat companies can build a large-enough customer base willing to buy the premium products to sustain them as they scale up and optimize manufacturing.
Here’s where cultivated pet food may have an advantage. While a price tag is far from determined, it is likely to become cheaper, faster. Companies like Biocraft don’t have to worry about creating a mouth-watering texture that resembles Wagyu steak or chicken breast (pet food isn’t exactly notorious for being a feast for the eyes, after all).
Instead, Falconer is working on creating a meat “slurry” that can be packaged into cans — a process that is far cheaper, since the biomass (which is normally unusable for cultivated meat for humans) can be used in the product. “Price is less of an issue for us,” says Falconer.
Even if the price is high, people may shell out big bucks for the health of their furry friends. According to one poll, 52 percent of Americans spend more on their pets than themselves, with quality food being the top reason why. If cultivated meat can tap into this mindset among consumers concerned about the health of pets eating the meat that comes factory farms — it could fly off the shelves.
A Healthy Bonus for Pets
“I see cultivated meat being even more readily accepted in the pet category than the human category,” says Falconer, “For consumers like myself, I’m not going to run out and try chicken breasts, because I just don’t have the taste for it.”
The data backs her up. According to polling, nearly half of pet owners are willing to feed their companion animals cultivated meat — a figure 15 points higher than the number of people willing to eat it themselves. Vegetarians and vegans, who might be averse to eating cultivated meat (usually because they’ve lost the taste for it, not for ethical reasons) were among the most enthusiastic to buy it for their pets.
If Biocraft can sway pet parents that not only is the product more sustainable and ethical, but also healthier, they’ll be able to nab a massive share of the market. The biggest concern customers have about cultivated pet food is its health and naturalness.
To earn pet lovers’ trust, Biocraft is partnering with veterinarians to ensure healthy products and, critically, endorsements. They will sell their product to existing pet food brands with established and loyal customer bases instead of launching their product themselves. Together, Falconer is confident that as long as her company remains transparent, customers will soon flock to store shelves to buy the more ethical and sustainable alternative.
They also have one more trick up their sleeves: the ability of cultivated meat to freely choose any animal cells to replicate. Many dogs and cats are eating allergens in their food. Though the cause is unknown, some researchers believe the origin could be because pet food often comes from animals the pets did not evolve eating. Dogs have no history of eating chicken, nor do cats have ancestors who chowed on tuna.
Biocraft is currently working on two main meals that might seem surprising at first: mouse and rabbit, each designed to replicate the ancestral diets of cats and dogs, respectively. This represents a novel opportunity for cultivated pet food: unlike cultivated meat for humans, which only serves to mimic a typical restaurant experience.
Aiming for a 2025 Debut
Biocraft isn’t the only competitor aiming for land in the paws of eager consumers. Wild Earth, a vegan pet food brand, announced a cultivated chicken product for dogs in 2021, and Bond Pet Foods raised 20 million in 2022 to create their own line of slaughter-free meat.
Biocraft is currently in communication with the FDA, Center for Veterinary Medicine and the EU regulatory board to become officially regulated. Cultivated meat for pets will also face the scalability challenge that all new food innovations face — can they create large enough bioreactors to create an affordable product in time?
The pathway is becoming more clear, says Falconer, but they’re likely looking at a 2025 debut in the United States, probably later in the EU. At that point, if all goes well, cats and dogs will have a newer, perhaps healthier, definitely more ethical and sustainable treat to chow down on.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is an Icelandic-American writer who examines the psychology of eating animals, the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and the plant-based meat industry. He lives in Spain with his two lovebirds.