Two dog treats introduced at SuperZoo used crickets as a novel pet food ingredient. The founders of these pet treat companies told Petfood Industry about cricket-based dog treats' sustainability, health and animal welfare aspects. However, pet owners need education to accept the six-legged protein sources, regardless of their virtues. Seeing the dog treats firsthand can help with that, they said.
Dog and cat owners may believe that four legs is good when it comes to pet food protein sources, such as lamb in dry dog food, and that two legs is better, considering the primacy of chicken in pet food. Even zero legs is popular, such as salmon in dog and cat food, but no recipes in the Dog and Cat Food Ingredient Center list six-legged crickets. That may change soon.
“The biggest challenge is perception,” Chris Mahlberg, co-founder of EntoBento cricket-based dog treats, told Petfood Industry at SuperZoo 2017. “To overcome this ick-factor, we have to make sure the treats smell really good and look really good. Just looking at them, you can see some of the ingredients, like blueberries.”
That helps normalize the treats, he said, so people see real bits of coconut instead of imagining cricket thoraxes. Along with presentation, promoting crickets’ environmental and animal-welfare benefits plays a strong role in cricket-based dog treat marketing.
"They use exponentially less resources than almost any other animal protein source," Ann Carlson, founder and CEO of Jiminy's, told Petfood Industry. "They use less land, less feed, less water, and they emit hardly any greenhouse gases."
What’s more, crickets may meet pet food consumers’ demands for humanely raised protein sources. Crickets naturally live in groups and instinctually prefer dark, warm places, Carlson said, which are precisely the conditions found on a cricket farm.
“The end of life is very humane as well, you just lower the temperature and they go into hibernation,” Carlson said. “So, it's really as humane as you can get.”
While animal welfare claims on pet food labels may draw dog and cat owners’ attention, it may take more to get pet owners to overcome the ick-factor. Likewise, the sustainability angle hasn’t sold EntoBento dog treats to hesitant pet owners, said Mahlberg.
Instead, promoting the health benefits of the cricket-based dog treats, such as their omega-3 fatty acid content, has been most effective, he said. Similarly, since crickets may not trigger meat allergies, owners of sensitive pets have been major consumers.
Crickets may have another health benefit, said Carlson. Scientists are examining cricket’s potential prebiotic effects in the digestive system.
Along with knowing the health benefits, dog owners need to see and sample the treats, said Mahlberg.
"Getting it in the store and getting them samples is really important,” he said. “Having them interact with the treats allows them to see crickets as a fun cookie, rather than a gross bug in their minds."
Mahlberg’s company, EntoBento, started at a Google start-up event. His team’s project began as modular cricket farms for low-income households. The project evolved into dog treats after the team realized that people weren’t quite ready to accept crickets on their plates. They won second place.
EntoBento now makes three flavors of dog treats and sells in independent pet food retailers mostly on the US West Coast. The company started there, in San Diego, California, but now sells as far east as Chicago.
EntoBento makes dog treats, but is considering a pet food topper that cats could eat too. Cricket-based dog treats are easier to formulate than cat foods or treats, Mahlberg said. The bases for EntoBento’s treats are vegetables, since the cricket flour doesn’t work well alone in recipes. Plants may not be nutritionally appropriate for cats, so formulating cat food or treats using cricket flour can be difficult.
“Crickets are the gateway bug,” said Carlson, since the animals are often people’s first experience with eating an insect.
Carlson founded Jiminy’s in Berkeley, California, USA. She named the company as an homage to crickets, referring to the euphemism “Jiminy Cricket.” That phrase was used in place of blasphemy, starting in the 1800’s, she said.
"That's why we were able to trademark it without worrying about Disney,” Carlson said.
Speaking of legal issues, cricket-based pet food ingredients haven’t been defined by the Association of Feed Control Officials, not has the United States federal government definitively ruled on their status as an ingredient.
However, this hasn’t been a major problem for Carlson in selling or distributing cricket-based dog treats. She is working with the US Food and Drug Administration. She believes the insects’ long history of consumption by humans and animals will lead to crickets being classified as generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
Carlson and Mahlberg stressed that all of their crickets are from North American farms. One such farm has been supplying crickets to the pet trade for generations. Armstrong’s Cricket Farm in West Monroe, Louisiana, USA started raising crickets for fishing bait, but moved into the pet food market in the late 70’s.
Ninety percent of their business is now in the exotic animal food market, Brandon Armstong, fourth generation cricket farmer and operations manager at Armstrong’s, told Petfood Industry.
"It [dog and cat food market] hasn't affected us so much so far, but we’re excited about it in the near future,” he said.
For dogs and cats, and people too for that matter, crickets provide a complete protein with all essential amino acids and branched chain amino acids, he said. Crickets provide those protein building blocks with less fat than mammalian livestock.
Like other livestock, the quality of the crickets depends on the quality of their feed and housing. Armstong uses a blend similar to chicken feed but with specialized vitamins and minerals.
Unlike other livestock, crickets chirp. Cricket farms don’t sound like a bucolic pasture on a July evening though.
"Once you get a couple million crickets in a room it becomes more of a roar sound,” said Armstong.
If the buzz about crickets in the pet food industry grows to a roar, more pet owners may overcome the ick factor and decide that six legs is good too.