Lab-grown cat food soon to hit supermarket shelves

Retailers could soon be stocking lab-grown pet food, as a start-up investigates regulatory approval to roll out its “humane” and “sustainable” new product.

With growing consumer concern about traditional agriculture’s impact on animal welfare and the environment, US-based Because, Animals are aiming to release a premium alternative.

Grown in an environment free of pathogens, cell-based meat can be created without the use of antibiotics, which are used extensively in traditional animal agriculture, the company’s CEO Shannon Falconer said.

Two images of scientists growing cell-based meat for Because, Animals
Cell-based meat is being grown in bioreactors will one day be used to feed pets. Source: Because, Animals

“We're creating it in a way that's actually pretty similar to the way probiotics, for example, are grown,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“(It will be) inside a bioreactor where we feed the cells all the nutrients they need.”

Mouse flesh to be fed to cats in 'evolutionary appropriate' plan

Cats will be the first to benefit from a new “ancestral” diet according to the company which has cultured cells from the ears of mice rescued from a research facility.

By using mouse flesh, they hope to reduce allergens which cats often suffer from as a result of consuming beef and chicken.

“In making cultured meat, we really saw this as an opportunity to create the protein from the meat source that is most evolutionarily appropriate for them,” Ms Falconer said.

Three mice in a wooden cage.
Three mice biopsied for their ear cells are now living as pets. Source: Supplied

While the mice used in the project are now retired and living with the son of one of the scientists, their cells will be used to grow an indefinite amount of protein.

Because, Animals has received $6.7 million in funding to date, including investment announced this year from Norwegian conglomerate Orkla.

The company aims to initially release their product in the US, with a view to expand into European and Asian markets

Like most jurisdictions, regulatory hurdles reman in Australia, with the Department of Agriculture confirming cell-based animal feed is yet to receive a biosecurity assessment.

"The department’s regulation of Australian animal feed producers does not currently support imports of materials or components that could be used to produce laboratory grown meat in Australia to be fed to pets or livestock," a spokesperson said.

Aussie start-ups growing cell-based meat for human consumption

Commercial sale of cell-based meat for human consumption is likely not far off, with one product already approved for sale in Singapore.

Creating the desired texture of cuts like steak remains a major hurdle, along with growing mass at an acceptable price.

Australia’s food regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) said this month it is not currently evaluating any applications for lab meat, adding assessment of new products generally takes nine to 12 months.

A woman looking inside a supermarket fridge.
Cell-based meat is yet to be approved for sale outside of Singapore. Source: Getty

Approval to sell lab-meat locally is unlikely to be a “huge hurdle” according to Dr Bianca Le, founder of not-for-profit Cellular Agriculture Australia, who said the industry has a good relationship with the regulator.

There are currently seven start-ups in Australia, working on a range of cell-based products, with projects including the growth of human breast milk, production of fat and flesh, and the development of meat scaffolding.

While the foods will be created without animal slaughter, many vegans approached by Yahoo News Australia said they remain staunch in their avoidance of any derived products, but are open to feeding it to pets.

Cell-base meat could take market share from farmed product

Wider consumer acceptance remains a barrier to growth internationally, with companies tackling the challenge in different ways.

While some are creating novel taste sensations, others are working to compete directly with traditional meats by creating products that are identical in taste, texture and nutrition.

A senate inquiry into the labelling of plant-based “fake meats” was announced this week by Queensland Nationals senator Susan McDonald, but it is unclear whether the outcome will affect the future of cell-based meats.

Young cattle in a pen.
Cell-based products could take market share from farmed meat. Source: Getty

Some within the cell-based industry believe it is important their product names include the word meat, as they are biologically compatible to farmed food, meaning they carry the same allergy risks.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), which has the stated goal of doubling the value of Australia’s traditional red meat sales, identified lab-grown products in 2018 as having the potential to take future market share.

They concluded cell-based meat can meet the demands of consumers concerned about humane treatment of animals and sustainable stewardship of natural resources.

Despite their concerns, they found lab-grown products are making headlines due to their “novelty factor”.

A study by the group reported low consumer awareness and understanding of cell-based meat, which they believe is consistent with other developed markets.

Call for transparency in development of cell-based meat

Private investment in cell-based meats grew sixfold in 2020, with financial backers including two of the world’s largest beef producers, Tyson and Cargill as well as rich-listers Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

Cellular Agriculture Australia compares lab-meat to renewable energy, saying both are technologies Australia must invest in to remain competitive globally.

“Unless Australia just wants to be falling behind on yet another important future thinking technology, then we really need to put in investment and money into the academic research,” the group’s founder Dr Le said.

“This means ensuring that the discoveries are not locked off in the private companies.”

Looking to improve academic research in the space is Swiss food industry veteran Professor Johannes le Coutre who was invited to Australia by the University of NSW.

The biologist is not only working to develop new processes and procedures to grow cell-based meat within the in the school of chemical engineering, he can also call on the law and business faculties to investigate wider commercial and ethical issues.

Left - a portrait of Professor Johannes le Coutre. Right - the UNSW lab.
Professor Johannes le Coutre is working with UNSW's school of chemical engineering to develop cell-based meat processes. Source: Supplied

He believes a commercially available cell-based meat which is blended with majority plant-based materials could be available within two years, while a fully cell-based product is five to 10 years away.

Lab grown products will not replace traditional meat but be sold along side it, allowing farmed food to be sold at a “more realistic higher price point” on supermarket shelves, according to the professor.

As these new products are rolled out, he believes it is essential that while production is profitable and commercial, it also remains open and transparent.

“This is what people eat; the idea is to develop materials eaten by Joe average and the whole wide population,” he said.

“It is important to have an academic arm in this domain, otherwise, each and every start-up company, they will do their own thing.

“They will have their own IP, they will have their own patents, and then maybe we are in a situation where untransparent products hit the food shelves and that's not a desirable scenario.”

“We need to educate a workforce dedicated to deal with such a future, otherwise we will be run over by activities that are evolving behind closed doors.”

“Food is something which basically belongs to everybody.”

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