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It’s probably not surprising that Shannon Falconer chose to devote her career to helping animals.
As an only child growing up in Canada with three dogs and three cats, her pets became her best friends and “siblings.” As a young adult, she volunteered at a cat rescue in Toronto doing Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) missions late at night to humanely trap community (aka feral) cats, have them neutered or spayed and vaccinated, and returned to their outdoor realm.
After earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry, she became a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University in California, where she had an epiphany.
“Basically I decided—because I’ve been involved in animal rescue for such a long time and stopped eating meat when I was in my early teens—that I really wanted to dedicate my scientific career to actually taking animals out of the supply chain,” she told The Dog People.
Her goal: creating an alternative to traditional pet food. She got in touch with the research institute New Harvest, and the executive director suggested she contact Joshua Errett, a fellow Canadian who had just earned his MBA.
As luck would have it, Falconer and Errett had a lot in common.
“The funny thing is we were both living in Toronto, both running in the same cat rescue circle for many, many years, and had not crossed paths,” she said. “We knew all the same people. We may have even been involved in helping some of the (same) feral communities. So we connected after the fact and went from there.”
- Joshua Errett, co-founder of Because, Animals, holds his rescue cat, Frankie—the first cat to eat the company’s prototype treat. Photo courtesy of Because, Animals.
In 2016, the two founded Because, Animals, a U.S.-based biotech company that grows cultured meat for dogs and cats.
“Cultured meat is not a meat alternative. Cultured meat is meat produced in an alternative way,” Falconer explained. “Or another way to put it: you could say cultured meat is meat grown without the animal.”
To develop their first cultured meat product—a cat treat—the team at Because, Animals rescued three mice that would have otherwise been used for research purposes.
“We took a small amount of tissue from their ears, and then these mice went on to live with one of our scientists in a plush mouse house in her home,” Falconer said. “From that tissue, we then isolate the cells of interest, and from there, we feed them nutrients—a combination of vitamins, minerals, amino acids.”
The cells consume the nutrients and grow and divide inside a vessel that’s warm and allows for gas exchange, according to Falconer.
“Inside of an animal, of course, this would be a womb, but for us, we call it a bioreactor,” she said.
Then the team harvests the cells, which form a sort of slurry, and can create treats, kibble, or wet food.
- The three rescued mice whose cells created the first mouse meat treats for cats are now about 18 months old and thriving in the home of one of the scientists from Because, Animals. Photo courtesy of Because, Animals.
Because, Animals recently received $2 million in investment from European food conglomerate Orkla ASA—the company’s first investment in pet food—bringing total investor financing to $6.7 million (other investors include SOSV, Draper Associates, and Keen Growth Capital).
With that boost, the startup has moved into a growth phase and is focused on infrastructure development, like optimizing equipment to yield the most product and help make the treats commercially affordable.
The cultured mouse meat treats should be available in 2022 and cost about the same as other premium offerings, probably around $10 to $15 a bag, according to the company’s website. (While those products are not yet available, the company currently offers plant-based treats and meal toppers.)
Falconer and Errett chose that protein source since cats eat mice in the wild and are obligate carnivores who need to consume other animals to obtain necessary nutrients like taurine, which is important to heart health.
“We really saw this as an opportunity to grow the protein sources most evolutionarily appropriate for our cats,” she said. “That’s why we’re working on mouse for cats, and it will be rabbit for dogs.”
- The team at Because, Animals is working to bring the world’s first cultured meat pet food made from mouse cells to the market in 2022. Photo courtesy of Because, Animals.
While the treats should be the first cultured meat pet food made from cultured mouse tissue to hit the market, other companies are racing to create “clean” meat alternatives for both pets and people. Falconer noted that Colorado’s Bond Pet Foods developed recombinant protein for dogs; essentially, Bond extracts the genetic code from a chicken and clones it onto a yeast genome. California’s Wild Earth developed vegan dog treats from cultured koji (a fungus).
It may seem like science fiction to those unfamiliar with the concept of cultured meat, but nonprofits like the Good Food Institute and companies such as California’s Eat Just are striving to make it part of human diets as well. Due to advances and interest in the technology, in 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration announced a formal agreement to work together to oversee and regulate “cell-cultured food products” in America. At the end of 2020, a restaurant in Singapore became the world’s first to serve cultured meat–chicken nuggets–made by Eat Just’s brand GOOD Meat.
Advocates say there is momentum for cultured meat because it’s good for the planet and healthier for those who eat it. In 2019, a report commissioned by the United Nations found that animal agriculture contributes to climate change by producing the greenhouse gas methane and using natural resources, so alternatives like cultured meat avoid factory farming and, of course, the slaughter of animals.
“Furthermore, we don’t grow our meat in the presence of any antibiotics,” Falconer said of Because, Animals. “Antibiotics are sold to the animal agriculture industry, so it’s a really big driver of the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. There are trace levels of antibiotics in virtually all farm animals, and this ends up getting into pet food as well.”
- Dr. Shannon Falconer and her husband met their rescue dog, Gaia, on vacation in Costa Rica. The former street dog was emaciated and covered in sores when she crawled to Falconer, who got her veterinary care and found a way to bring her back to America. Photo courtesy of Because, Animals.
Since Because, Animals uses a bioreactor instead of an animal to make meat, the risk of pathogens is low. And if there’s any contamination, they can spot it right away and cull the batch. Additionally, by not using rendered meat, Because, Animals doesn’t need to sterilize products the way the current commercial pet food industry does, so the meat contains natural levels of taurine and other essential nutrients instead of needing to add them, according to Falconer.
“Probably a lot of people are left wondering, ‘Is it actually better for my pets?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes, absolutely,’” she said. “We wouldn’t be doing this otherwise.”