Consumers’ health and environmental concerns are fueling the emergence of a new meat-free category: pet food.
Amid growing pet ownership fueled by the pandemic, owners want to apply their own dietary habits and values to their animals, and are willing to pay more to do so. This has led to the introduction of products from plant-based dog food to pet treats made from insects, say managers and analysts.
“The modern consumer and pet owner wants to feed their pet companions the same way they feed themselves,” says Michael Lavin, founder of agricultural and food technology venture capital firm Germin8, which specializes in animal nutrition and health. “They apply the same principles about food when making decisions for their pets.”
The factors that cause these products – the link between meat intake and environmental damage, and health care around processed foods – reflect those that drive the increase in “flexitarism” in humans, where consumers follow a largely plant-based diet with the occasional intake of meat and dairy products.
Judy Nadel, co-founder of the start of vegan pet food The Pack, predicts the rise of the “flexi-dogian”, or dogs that eat mainly vegetarian and vegan food with occasional meat spoilage. “We are going through a climate crisis. It will be unacceptable for dogs to eat meat for every meal in the future, ”she argued.
The environmental impact of pet food production is significant, with researchers at the University of Edinburgh calculate that agricultural land equal to twice the size of the UK is used to produce dry pet food worldwide for cats and dogs every year.
They found that about half of dry food consists of crops, including maize and rice, with the rest of animal or fish products. By combining the findings with data on the environmental effects of ingredient production, they found that the annual CO2 release from dry food was 106 million tons, which, in land terms, would be the world’s 60th highest emitter, the researchers said.
As far as animal health is concerned, some owners are concerned about processed meats in dog food. “In human diets, it is well recognized that processed meat is linked to rising levels of cancer and obesity, but it is 2021 and we continue to feed it as the main component of our dogs’ diet,” said Guy Sandelowsky, a veterinarian. and co-founder of vegan pet food startup Omni.
Big brands also place bets on alternative proteins.
Mars, which owns leading brands including Pedigree, Royal Canin and Whiskas, launched Karma a “plant-first” food with 60 percent non-GMO plants mixed with animal ingredients in the US this year. In the UK, it has Lovebug, a insect protein-based brand for cats.
The company is also among the investors in Wild Earth, a leading American plant-based pet food start-up that is also moving into pet food made from laboratory-grown meat.
The emerging market is still small, but Tracey Massey, world president of Mars’ pet food unit, expects alternative protein pet food to grow by 30 percent by 2025. “It’s a lot of niche, but it’s growing fast,” she said.
Last year, Nestlé’s Purina brand launched dog food built around ingredients such as insect proteins and fava beans, as well as meat. In 2020, he bought the natural pet food brand Lily’s Kitchen, which also offers vegan dog treats and dog food with ingredients such as millet and lentils as well as courgettes and carrots.
But there is debate about the nutritional value of plant-based dog food. As mandatory carnivores, unable to properly digest plants, cats should not be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet, according to the British Veterinary Association. The body has not recommended to feed a dog a vegetarian diet, even though it was theoretically possible, according to Justine Shotton, BVA president.
“At present, there is not much evidence-based research for vegan pet foods that meets the nutritional needs of dogs,” says Shotton, who added that pet owners interested in vegetarian or vegan diets for their pets should first talk to their veterinarian. She said all owners have a duty of care to their pets to ensure they meet their animals’ welfare needs.
Although not vegan, insect proteins provide a dietary alternative to meat, while avoiding animal welfare problems. Still, it remains an expensive option and some pet owners, according to analysts, are reluctant to feed insects to their pets.
Nadel said The Pack worked with animal nutritionists and scientists to produce dog food using pea protein, papaya, kale and seaweed. “We can achieve the same nutritional values as meat with plant-based foods,” she said.
Massey at Mars said although dogs can survive on a meat-free diet, “you have to make sure you supplement with other things”, adding: “It’s not as simple as saying ‘I’m a vegan, I’m want my pet to be a vegan. ‘ “It is difficult. We have spent years developing these products.”
Shiv Sivakumar, co-founder of Omni, has warned consumers to prepare their own vegan dog food. But growing up in a vegan family in South Asia, with his pet dogs essentially eating what people ate and living 14-16 years, gave him the confidence that dogs could thrive on a non-meat diet.
Needle is positive about vegan dog food and expects 50 per cent of all dogs in the UK to follow the human flexitarianism trend by 2030. She acknowledges that some customers want to offer their dogs a variety and see vegan food as a complementary option.
For established pet food companies, it is about offering consumers choice.
The Internet allows pet owners to try “new products and see what works,” Massey said, adding: “Some of these trends are going to come and go – no one really knows which one is going to stay. I would say, keep an eye on this space. . ”