Walking along the pet food aisle, beef, lamb, chicken, and fish dominate the ingredient list. Tolerated by most pets, they are the go-to protein source for pet food formulators. However, new alternatives are on their way, which may answer pet owners’ growing concerns about the bioavailability, sustainability, and animal welfare of mainstream pet food.

With conventional pet food estimated to be responsible for a quarter of the environmental impacts of meat production – in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuels, phosphates, and pesticides – it is natural that we see a significant uptake in new proteins being used.

Duck, seaweed, goat and even insect protein are trending in newly formulated pet foods, with sustainability being the driving force of change. Dr Stephanie Stubbe, Veterinarian and Founder of pet treat company Anipal, has seen how today’s pet owners are not just choosing pet food for its nutrition content but for its impact on the environment.

“Having a background in agriculture and being from a beef farm has fuelled my passion in helping drive positive environmental change in the veterinary, pet and agricultural industries,” she says. “We use alternative proteins in our pet food range to help improve nutritional outcomes for pets with ingredients that have low carbon footprints.”

The primary novel protein sources Dr Stubbe uses in her natural treats include seaweed, insect meal and kelp, which are said to be both hypoallergic and less carbon-intensive to produce.

“The most important element about a complete protein from a nutritional perspective is its bioavailability – how well it can be broken down and used by the body. The proteins we use have high bioavailability, so the dog can easily digest them to support muscle development and repair, bone development and repair, hormone and enzyme protein,” says Dr Stubbe.

“They are also much less carbon-intensive in how they are produced. Fifty times more seaweed can be produced on a hectare than wheat and 10 times more protein per hectare than cattle farms. Insects are 12 to 25 times more efficient than cattle in converting their feed to produce the same amount of protein.”

Carolyn MacGill, Executive Manager at the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA), welcomes the use of insect protein in pet food yet is wary of its health claims.

“The most common reasons we hear that pet food companies are starting to use, or are considering, insect protein is sustainability and cost,” she says. “Although some companies manufacture offshore using insect protein on a reasonable scale, it is still in the consolidation phase in Australia. Insect protein is regarded as more sustainable, and with increased production and availability, it should become more cost competitive compared to current protein sources. There are indications that it may assist where pets have an allergy to animal protein, but I have no evidence yet to support this.”

New Zealand wet food and treat company Zealandia also uses novel proteins in its formulations that claim to be hypoallergenic and are sourced using regenerative farming or direct from the wild.

“A cat or dog should enjoy a diverse range of complete and balanced nutrition with different proteins. This is why we have 10 variants in our range: beef, Brushtail possum*, chicken, duck, goat, Hoki fish, lamb, salmon, venison and wallaby,” says Andrew Burch, Director of Zealandia. “We incorporate a base of lamb organs in all our canned food, liver which is rich in B vitamins, green tripe for digestion ease, heart for natural CoQ10 and brain health, salmon oil for skin and coat health and green-lipped mussels for hip and joint maintenance.”

Zealandia’s four wild proteins – Brushtail possum*, goat, Hoki fish and wallaby – are not exposed to any antibiotics, or artificial hormones, which Burch says can help your pet be allergy tolerant to these proteins. Along with these wild protein sources, the company also produces food and treats using venison, duck, and elephant fish.

“We have a natural product made from elephant fish tails. This helps remove plaque from dogs’ teeth,” says Burch. “This year, we will launch Zoki Oil, made from Hoki fish oil, certified as sustainable by the International Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).”

Burch says novel proteins can offer different nutritional qualities and benefits to pets that standard proteins cannot. This can include unique levels of protein, fat amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.

“Brushtail possum*, for example, has the highest levels of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids than any other meat,” he says. “[It has] up to nine times the omega 3 fatty acid content found in beef or chicken.”

While the pet food industry may welcome the shift, veterinarians have yet to fully understand these alternative proteins’ nutritional benefits. Dr Stubbe believes this will come with time and research.

“Like myself, other veterinarians are driven by science,” she says. “Once we understand these proteins’ nutritional and environmental benefits, and there are reliable studies to demonstrate these benefits, we are interested in incorporating these new tools to help treat our patients.”

Burch agrees and says there will be considerable growth in the alternative proteins included in pet food, including lab-created products.

“There are several pet food companies already offering plant-based, vegan, and insect-based pet food. The next step further to this is cultivated meat for pets; however, the innovation is still in the research and development stage,” he says.

“It will take years to produce lab-grown meat in commercial volume and gain mass consumer appeal. In the meantime, until proven, we remain focused on natural, more biologically suitable proteins, which have been sourced through sustainable, regenerative farming, or wild from their natural habitat.”

Other environmentally sustainable proteins being researched and used in pet food include carbon-positive beef, created using regenerative farming methods such as planting more trees, not using artificial fertiliser, and by building soil carbon by sowing diverse plants into pastures.

Magill understands that the impacts of climate change and increasing biosecurity risks will mean the pet food industry will naturally assess ingredients and supply. However, at this stage, PFIAA’s main priority is continuing to ensure all pet food is safe.

“As with all pet food, it should meet a global standard, and it should be safe,” she says. “In Australia, we need pet food regulation. Regulation will support better pet food safety outcomes regardless of the protein source. With regulation, all manufacturers and importers would need to meet the standard.”

Pet owners and veterinarians alike are continuously searching for more nutritional and safe pet food that is also kinder on the planet. And with a variety of eco-conscious protein options to choose from, the pet food aisle may feature more of a diverse range of sources over the coming years. So, the future looks positive for those looking to include non-traditional proteins in their pet food formulations.

“We know that pet food follows human food, so we will see changes in the future,” says MacGill.

Dr Stubbe agrees and is enthusiastic about what the future holds for pet food.

“The future is exciting and limitless. There is a lot of potential in other algae, plant and marine-based proteins, yeasts and fungi,” says Dr Stubbe. “I look forward to exploring this space and developing scientific and sustainable solutions for the vet and pet industries.”

*The brushtail possum is a protected species in Australia, yet it is seen as an introduced pest in places like New Zealand. Brushtail possums, goats, and wallabies are hunted as part of an eradication program to help protect native New Zealand birds.

This article was written by Kylie Baracz for the Feb-Apr issue of Pet Industry News.

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