The ongoing search for new pet food protein sources

As with human food, the pet food industry continues to seek alternative sources of protein to meet demand and address sustainability and other concerns.

The poultry breeding industry is highly innovative, and poultry genetics companies utilize a wealth of smart technologies. | Courtesy Aviagen
The poultry breeding industry is highly innovative, and poultry genetics companies utilize a wealth of smart technologies. | Courtesy Aviagen

With pet food so closely linked to human food, I subscribe to and read several newsletters related to the latter category. Perusing a recent article on by Coco Liu about a potential new type of alternative protein for humans, a somewhat off-hand sentence toward the end caught my eye: “The company aims to sell the powder as a protein booster to factories manufacturing aquatic feed and pet fare before expanding its offering to suppliers of human-grade food.”

The powder mentioned is from a startup called MicroHarvest, which is developing a way to take a single, unidentified bacterium and ferment it into a protein that “tastes like a mix of miso paste and Vegemite, a spread made from brewer’s yeast and popular in Australia,” Liu wrote. I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater, willing to try new tastes and textures, but that doesn’t sound too appetizing.

Perhaps that’s why MicroHarvest plans to introduce it to aquafeed and pet food as a “protein booster” first? Notwithstanding that the article doesn’t address whether the company has done any research or discovery work to determine if the protein is healthy or beneficial for fish or pets, or what the regulatory implications might be. (Likely quite complex.)

Regardless, this development is another sign of the ever-increasing search for alternative protein sources for both people and animals, one likely to continue to influence the pet food industry for some time.

Alternative proteins have their share of challenges

In the Bloomberg article, Liu compares MicroHarvest’s protein and similar microbe-based and/or fermented products to plant-based proteins and cell-grown meat. “Fermented protein also has an edge over its alt-protein rivals: While it has yet to mimic conventional steak in texture, taste and look, turning a teaspoon of bacteria into a jar of ready-for-consumption protein powder requires no more than 24 hours,” she wrote. “By contrast, it usually takes weeks to cultivate cell-grown meat and even longer to grow soybeans or peas used in most plant-based mince or burger offerings.”

Yet, like other cutting-edge alternative proteins, this one faces some of the same challenges, such as scalability. Even the insect protein industry, which is a little farther along on its development path, is still working to reach a scale that would make it more affordable and available to serve as a true replacement for traditional protein sources.

In addition, while sources like insect protein tout their sustainability bona fides, that is still an open question for other alternatives. For example, recent studies have shown that cell-based meat may be even less sustainable than resource-intensive traditional sources like beef because of the energy needed to grow and cultivate the cells, reported my colleague, Tim Wall.

Plus, most of these new types of protein require their own specialized production facilities, and building and operating those entails significant investment and, in some cases, energy and land.

New ways to look at established protein sources?

While all these issues with newer protein sources are being studied and possibly addressed, more established ones may have new paths to follow in helping fill protein gaps and possibly tackling supply chain and sustainability concerns, too.

Plant-based proteins have a longer track record of usage, sales and, perhaps as importantly, consumer interest and demand in both human food and pet food than other alternatives; yet they may still offer new opportunities. Consider plant-based meat analogs for wet pet food, for example. (Alexandre Reithmuller, process engineer for Clextral, will explain new processing developments for these pet food ingredients on May 2 during Petfood Forum 2023.)

Even the most traditional protein sources—animals—may be more sustainable while also promising to eventually provide supply chain resilience. In the U.S. and other countries, smaller, regionally based producers of meat and poultry remain an unexplored source; though infrastructure and supply chain changes are currently necessary to make these meats more readily available to pet food manufacturers, potential is high, according to Dave Carter, regional director of the Flower Hill Institute. (He will also present at Petfood Forum 2023 on May 2.)

An expert quoted by Liu in her article sums it up well: “Exploring different approaches is important, as there isn’t likely to be one solution to meeting global demand and consumer preferences,” said Mark Turner, deputy head of the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland in Australia.



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