Shannon Falconer is the CEO and founder BioCraft Pet Nutrition (formerly Because, Animals), a biotechnology company making cultured meat for cats and dogs. Shannon holds an MSc in Cell and Systems Biology from the University of Toronto (Canada), a PhD in Biochemistry from McMaster University (Canada), and is co-author of eight peer-reviewed scientific publications.
In 2016 she founded BioCraft, the first company to focus exclusively on developing cultured meat to meet the unique nutritional needs of cats and dogs. Since then, BioCraft was among the first cultured meat companies to eliminate animal ingredients from cell culture media–including fetal bovine serum (FBS) and to derive non-immortalized stem cell lines for the specific application of cultured meat.
How would you describe the mission of BioCraft?
BioCraft’s mission is simple: we exist to take animals out of the supply chain. But what isn’t so obvious is why we chose pet food to accomplish this mission. The vast majority of meat used in pet food comes from the 50% of the animals that humans don’t want to eat, combined with “deadstock”, which are animals who die during transit or from disease and don’t ever make it to slaughter (and therefore can’t be sold for human consumption).
“we exist to take animals out of the supply chain”
People often refer to this meat as being the “scraps” that would otherwise go to waste. However, according to a recent review conducted by researchers at Kansas State University, these “scraps” accounted for 1.83 million tons used in pet food in the U.S. alone.
As of 2022, the global market size of pet food ingredients was $57.4 billion, with close to half of those ingredients being animal-derived. Especially when we take into account the razor-thin margins of the animal agriculture industry, it becomes very clear very quickly that without being able to sell these lucrative waste stream “scraps” to the pet food industry, the economics of the animal agriculture industry as we know it simply couldn’t work.
And this is exactly why BioCraft Pet Nutrition is focused on pet food as a means to target industrial animal agriculture. To date, pet food has been completely overlooked as an opportunity to put pressure on Big Ag. BioCraft is changing this.
There are a few different alt-protein approaches for pet foods in development. How is cultured meat different from recombinant animal protein, microbial- and plant-based protein for pet food?
There is a big difference between cultured meat and cultured protein. The difference may seem subtle, but it’s quite significant from a nutritional perspective. To provide an example that people may be more familiar with, let’s compare a protein isolate (such as whey protein isolate) with a steak.
A protein isolate contains one nutrient: protein. In contrast, steak provides a blend of many nutrients, including protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and those components of meat that make meat taste and smell like meat. When comparing recombinant protein to cultured meat, those same nutritional differences apply.
When it comes to both recombinant animal protein as well as microbial- and plant-based protein for pet food, it is important to consider that although these products offer protein (as well as other nutrients that are naturally found in plants and microbes), none of these options are sources of nutrients that can only be produced by animal cells like taurine, arachidonic acid and vitamin A/retinol–and it is precisely these animal-based nutrients that are so important to consider when thinking about the dietary requirements of carnivores, such as cats. In terms of alternative sources of such animal-based nutrients, there are only two options: synthetically manufactured, or naturally produced by cultured meat.
Can you tell us more about your process for developing cultured meat for pets and your products?
To make cultured meat, we take a small collection of cells from an animal and then feed those cells all the nutrients they need to grow. In our case, we’ve isolated cells from mice, the ancestral diet of cats; as well as chicken, the most common ingredient in pet food.
In making cultured meat, instead of the growing cells obtaining their nutrients via food ingested by an animal, we instead feed those cells the nutrients directly, inside of a warm vessel called a bioreactor. Bioreactors are not a new technology. In fact, most people reading this article regularly consume food and beverages that are the products of bioreactors, such as yeast to make beer and bacteria commonly known as probiotics.
We feed our cells a proprietary blend of plant-based ingredients–in fact, very similar ingredients to what would be fed to a growing farm animal, such as a chicken or cow–and in the process of growing, our animal cells metabolize those nutrients to form new nutrients that only animal cells can make.
In the end, we harvest our cells as well as all of the important animal-based nutrients they’ve manufactured, and use this meat and nutrient-rich “slurry” as a one-to-one replacement ingredient for conventional meat slurries already used by pet food manufacturers.
What would be the ideal partnership for you and what are the benefits for the producers, aside from reducing their own contributions to climate change?
For BioCraft, the ideal partner is one who 1) cares deeply about cats and dogs and is able to integrate our ingredient into a final product that is superior for pets in terms of health and safety than anything else on the market; and 2) can move volumes.
“our primary objective is to get our ingredients into the hands of as many people as possible and displace traditional meat”
As a company dedicated to the wellbeing of all animals, and with a focus on taking animals out of the supply chain, our primary objective is to get our ingredients into the hands of as many people as possible and displace traditional meat used in pet food as quickly as possible. And the best way to accomplish this is to partner with companies that have the deep expertise required to make premium pet food products, and have a customer base already waiting to purchase cultured meat for their cats and dogs.
Now that the U.S. has given regulatory clearance to two cultured meat companies, do you expect pet food to be approved soon?
I’m optimistic that cultured meat for pet food is not far from being commercially available. In the U.S., cultured meat for pet food is being regulated by the Center for Veterinary Medicine within the FDA. We have regular check-ins with regulatory experts and officials including the CVM.
What does it take for BioCraft to make a dent in the $100 billion pet food market and what are the next steps?
We’re on the road to scale-up and price parity, so our next step is pilot-scale production. We feel that with the right strategic support, that could be established in a few months. From there we move on to larger and larger batches.
The demand for pet foods — specifically, meat-based pet food — is on the rise; but the supply chain for meat is increasingly precarious, both in terms of price volatility and stock outs. Pet food manufacturers are desperate for a more stable alternative, so with increasing infrastructure to produce cultured meat for pet food, the sky’s the limit in this industry.