While some “cultivated meat” startups work on the technology to grow steak and burgers to serve in restaurants in place of farm-raised beef, a startup called Bond is using biotech to satisfy a different palette: Its animal-free chicken protein is going in dog treats. And there’s a possibility that cell-based pet food might make it to market faster than the versions designed for humans.
Bond, like other companies working on cultivated meat, wants to tackle the environmental and animal welfare problems posed by meat production without relying solely on plants as alternative ingredients. Plant-based proteins, says Bond CEO Rich Kelleman, can cause some nutritional challenges for dogs and cats.
“Depending on the calibration, they can block the absorption of some of the essential amino acids and micronutrients that a pet needs to thrive,” Kelleman says. “So because of those challenges, and because the public increasingly is looking for high-quality meat for their pet food products and for their pets’ consumption, we felt like there could be a better way to recapitulate these proteins and not try to totally source them on farm and field.”
Instead of trying to fully recreate meat—growing tissues and muscles from animal cells—the company is focused on just the protein. The companies making food for humans “are trying to recapitulate the meat-eating experience,” he says. “It’s about the taste, the texture, the mouthfeel, the smell, everything that they have to get perfect for the public to embrace it.” Dogs don’t have the same requirements: As long as the food tastes good, they’re happy to eat it. “It’s a fundamentally different challenge, and that means we have greater flexibility with its finished form,” Kelleman says.
While other “cell-based” meat companies culture cells in bioreactors, Bond uses microbial fermentation to produce chicken protein. The company’s scientists took a blood sample from a (still living) chicken on a farm, isolated the DNA, and then used that genetic code to program microbes to produce the same protein. It comes out of the fermenter looking like diced chicken. “We take that and gently dry it down into fine powder, and then it can be blended into a variety of different formats, whether it’s blended into kibble or baked into a treat,” he says.
The company has produced a prototype dog treat, which volunteer dogs “enthusiastically” ate in early testing. The team plans to continue to tweak its fermentation process, and then will work with FDA regulators to get approval for its products. The regulatory process will be simpler than for cultivated meat companies working on food for humans, who both use more complex technology and also need to get approval from the USDA. The R&D process is also more straightforward. “We have a sense that we could definitely get our products to market sooner than then they can,” says Kelleman.