The proteins traditionally used in dog and cat food are coming under scrutiny as organizations and agencies the world over debate how to feed a growing global population of not just people, but pets, too. According to the United Nations (UN), the global population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion people by 2050 and could reach 11 billion around 2100. In the United States alone, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) estimates roughly 70% of American households own at least one pet, representing 90.5 million homes.
Chicken and beef are by far the most common sources of protein found in commercial diets for dogs and cats in the United States. According to a joint report by the Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER), the North American Renderers Association (NARA) and Pet Food Institute (PFI), pet food producers purchased 854,988 tons of chicken products and 244,113 tons of beef products in 2018 for use in their formulas.
“Both humans and companion animals are competing for the same protein sources and, as the world population grows, there will be an ever-increasing pressure on the environmental sustainability of using both traditional and novel proteins for pet food,” said Adrian Pettyan, chief executive officer and co-founder of Caru Pet Food, Vero Beach, Fla.
When it comes to sourcing pet food proteins, a handful of brands are answering the call for improved environmental stewardship by sourcing novel proteins. This practice unlocks the potential for previously untapped and less competitive protein supply chains to feed the world’s pets.
“There is a larger variety of healthy novel proteins in the world than there are of common proteins, yet the common proteins continue to saturate the industry,” said Jared Shlager, chief executive officer, Mosaic Pet Food, Miami. “Sixty percent of pet owners in North America, mainly Millennials, are demanding healthier consumables for their pets, and at least 20% of the pet population must have novel proteins due to food allergies to common proteins. The main obstacle in the industry is convincing pet store owners and other major retailers to try offering consumables that have a greater purpose for pets than just a cheap treat that moves volume.”
“Just the simple act of using novel proteins saves a tremendous amount of resources,” said Dean Triandafellos, ROAM Pets.
Novel proteins are alternatives to the “ubiquitous” proteins — chicken, beef and pork — that have been traditionally incorporated in dog and cat foods, according to Dean Triandafellos, co-founder and chief executive officer at New Jersey-based ROAM Pets. Examples of novel proteins include venison, bison, buffalo, wild boar, crocodile, alligator, kangaroo, elk, ostrich, rabbit, pheasant, quail, goat, octopus, emu — essentially any protein not widely used to feed pets in the past. Additionally, invasive species such as Silver Copi (formerly known as Silver carp) and Nutria are being incorporated into pet food formulas as novel proteins to support the conservation of regional ecosystems.
The terms “novel proteins” and “exotic proteins” can be used interchangeably for this category but, no matter the nomenclature, the concept behind these proteins boils down to the same thing: offering pets non-traditional, more sustainable animal meats.
Leading up to ROAM Pets’ founding in 2018, co-founders Triandafellos and Steven Mendal, managing director of the company, spent two years speaking with focus groups and veterinary professionals to make a case for novel proteins in pet food. Three priorities were worked into the foundation of ROAM Pets from the very beginning — nutritional efficacy, palatability and sustainability.
On the nutritional front, novel proteins have been shown to be leaner and lower in fat and calories compared to traditional protein sources. The company incorporates novel proteins into three product categories: 20-minute chews under its Cuz I Love You brand, marrow bones and occupying chews under its Let’s Celebrate brand, and reward and training treats under its Great Job brand. Additionally, Triandafellos shared that, due to the nature of how these proteins are sourced, they are often free from antibiotics and GMOs, and hypoallergenic (more on that later).
“Novel proteins are a leaner protein, meaning very little fat, and a very high protein content,” Shlager said. “In general, each serving contains about half the calories as the same serving of industrial farmed proteins like beef and pork. Novel proteins also have a fraction of the fat than the more prevalent proteins in the market today.”
For example, kangaroo has less than 1 gram of fat per serving and 21.3 grams of protein per serving, while rabbit has only 2 grams of fat and 17 grams of protein, and alligator only 4 grams of fat and 46 grams of protein, according to Sherry Padgett, sales and service director, Walk About Pet, New Holland, Pa. This compares to 6.3 grams of fat and 22 grams of protein per serving of beef.
For these reasons, and also due to the natural amount of Omega 3 fatty acids in exotic proteins, such as ostrich meat, as well as the higher protein low fat content, these novel protein diets can also benefit the estimated 50% of dogs that are currently suffering from obesity, Shlager shared.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), nearly 60% of cats and more than 55% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. As part of its 2019 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day, the association shared several obesity intervention strategies, which include calorie reduction or feeding smaller portions, feeding low-calorie or low-fat pet foods, feeding “prescription” weight loss diets, and increased exercise are among the most popular strategies used by veterinary professionals and pet owners alike.
“Farm raised animals are often fed high-calorie, grain-based diets resulting in a meat that is higher in saturated fat, which can lead to obesity along with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, pancreatitis, cancer, joint problems and even a shortened life span,” Pettyan noted. “Additionally, novel proteins tend to be cleaner and free from chemicals, as these protein sources are not fed grain-based diets, which is good for the pets’ health and wellbeing, since grains are often sprayed with pesticides.”
Caru Pet Food sources alligator, wild boar, rabbit and venison for its baked, semi-moist Soft ‘n Tasty Treats for dogs and cats, which Pettyan describes as a “high-value training treat” due to their palatability and meat-first approach.
Pettyan elaborated on the built-in functional benefits that some exotic protein sources can offer pets. For example, naturally occurring Omega 3 fatty acids found in kangaroo and fish-based proteins can contribute to skin and coat health benefits. Ostrich meat, which is the only red meat poultry, Triandafellos pointed out, is not only high in iron, zinc and protein, but is also highly digestible and easily assimilated to beef, while touting significantly fewer calories and less fat. Venison, on the other hand, is an excellent source of vitamin B, which dogs need in their diets and contributes to skin and coat health as well as nervous system health. Venison is also low in cholesterol and fat, Triandafellos added.
“Kangaroo meat has many noteworthy health benefits besides being almost fat free,” Padgett added. “It is six-times higher than beef in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which helps burn fat and build muscle. Kangaroo is also helpful in treating pancreatitis. Rabbit is another good low-fat choice and is high in vitamin B12, with additional potential anti-carcinogenic effects. Alligator is very high in protein as well, and great for heart health and blood health due to its high levels of potassium.”
Walk About Pet formulates its jerky dog treats, freeze-dried treats for dogs and cats, and kibble formulas for dogs using kangaroo, alligator, wild boar, duck, quail, lamb, goat, rabbit and minnow proteins.
According to Triandafellos, pets can develop allergies by repetitively consuming industrially produced proteins. By incorporating novel proteins, pet owners can alleviate food sensitivities or allergies and “let the pet experience a variety of proteins the way nature intended,” he said.
Shlager added, “Exotic proteins are hypoallergenic and have major natural benefits for digestive issues. The main health benefit of novel and exotic proteins is that they help pets who suffer from food allergies to common proteins.”
Mosaic incorporates a wide variety of novel proteins — most recently ostrich — into freeze-dried and dehydrated treats, byproduct chews, oils and supplements, and hopes to introduce a complete-and-balanced exotic protein pet food in the near future.
For the planet
According to a 2017 study by Gregory Okin, a professor in the University of California Los Angeles’ Department of Geography, through their diets alone, dogs and cats are responsible for 25% to 30% of the total environmental impacts of animal products, “in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate and biocides,” the paper states.
Citing this same research study, CRB stated in its “Horizons: Pet Food” report: “Dogs and cats in the US consume enough animal-derived protein to feed 62 million people. Diverting such an enormous volume of traditional meat and seafood away from the human food chain and into pet food products will become increasingly difficult to justify as the global population continues to swell.”
“Fifty-one percent of the world’s carbon footprint is attributed to animal agriculture,” Triandafellos said. “…Our most valuable resource, water, is used in abundance for traditionally farmed animal proteins like beef, chicken and pork. It takes roughly 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 lb of beef. Because our novel proteins are free-range — they feed and hydrate themselves — and sustainably sourced, we don’t need to waste resources growing food to feed them, transporting the feed for processing, processing the feed, and getting it to the animals. Just the simple act of using novel proteins saves a tremendous amount of resources.”
Triandafellos shared all proteins sourced for ROAM products are “truly free range,” meaning they feed and hydrate themselves, for the most part, without intervention. This leads to healthier proteins that are free from added GMOs, hormones and antibiotics, he added. Additionally, sourcing proteins from animals that must be culled to conserve natural ecosystems is like hitting two birds with one stone; it benefits both pets and the planet.
“The main requirement for ROAM proteins is that they are culled for population control or biodiversity,” Triandafellos said. “For example, there are no predators for the ostrich or kangaroo. They proliferate and consume food that lesser species need to survive. At ROAM, we source out these controlled natural culls and make sure to use all parts of the animal that are usually thrown into bone meal or wasted.”
Take kangaroo as one example. Padgett cited the Australia Department of Environment, which states its commercial kangaroo harvest is “one of the world’s best practiced wild harvest operations, with management goals based firmly on principles of sustainability,” she said. She added that sourcing wild boar, a destructive and invasive species in some areas, for use in pet nutrition not only supports sustainability but also helps to conserve natural ecosystems.
“Research has shown that traditional high-meat diets for pets are having a major impact on environmental sustainability, as these diets require more land, water and energy when compared to non-traditional, plant sourced proteins,” Pettyan said. “Typically, novel proteins are not obtained from mass-produced animal farms, so it would seem to have merit to make use of these novel protein sources.”
“We make use of the entire animal and we leave zero waste,” said Jared Shlager, Mosaic.
In other words, selecting less-familiar protein sources — such as novel proteins — can result in significant natural resource savings. For example, Shlager noted it requires 99% less land and 98% less water to raise ostriches compared to raising cattle. Aside from saving resources like land and water, Mosaic is using every part of the animal to create various treat, chew and food formats, resulting in zero-waste operations.
“We make use of the entire animal and we leave zero waste,” Shlager said. “Our products vary from freeze-dried and dehydrated treats, body parts, tendons, oils, supplements, toys, grooming products, and, by next year, we will have a complete-and-balanced exotic diet.”
Into the wild
The merits of novel proteins come with their own set of built-in challenges. In fact, many of the differentiating factors that set novel proteins apart from traditional proteins are also the main obstacles. These include sourcing practices — or, rather, building a reliable supply chain — and cost.
“These types of proteins are not cheap, which is why barnyard proteins are much more prevalent in the pet industry,” Padgett said. “Our kangaroo comes from Australia, and our Merino lamb and goat proteins are sourced from New Zealand. Time can be of essence in getting those proteins due to the travel distance. We have to pay close attention to our inventory because they take a while to receive.”
Novel proteins typically cost more than traditional proteins and the global supply of them is far lower in comparison to traditional proteins, making it crucial for brands to conduct thorough research before establishing partnerships or launching new products.
For Mosaic, establishing strong partnerships across the globe has played a key part in its ability to grow.
“There are many international sourcing obstacles, but the issues have nothing to do with the animals themselves,” Shlager said. “It’s more about trusting who you partner with. These proteins are more expensive than common proteins, but the price of common proteins are rising, so it is starting to level the price structure of common proteins compared to exotic proteins.”
Sourcing challenges are not uncommon, and the ability to pivot around disruptions is crucial for all companies regardless of their protein sourcing practices, but perhaps especially for novel protein brands.
“For us, it takes us sometimes years to find free-range sources of these proteins,” Triandafellos said. “There must also be an organized hunt and regulated culling. It takes us around one-and-a-half to two years to source out, vet and develop new supply chains, so we are always working ahead on the next great protein.”
ROAM Pets requires its protein suppliers to be registered through the US Food and Drug Administration, maintain HAACP certification, and provide local veterinary certifications with every shipment. Additionally, microbial testing results are required for every shipment, as well as pest control certifications, among other things.
“The bottom line is that we all want our pets to be healthy, and food is a direct link to health,” said Sherry Padgett, Walk About Pet.
Despite these challenges, pet food and treat companies competing in this category will continue to seek out less-familiar protein sources to benefit the health of pets and the environment.
“The bottom line is that we all want our pets to be healthy, and food is a direct link to health,” Padgett concluded. “Walk About Pet uses the proteins we do because they are healthy, free-range proteins that are good for our pets and the environment.”
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