On a select number of pet store shelves, Purina is testing out new lines of dog food made with crickets, Asian carp and other unconventional protein sources.
The recent, limited release from the company’s RootLab product line can only be found at a handful of Pet Supplies Plus stores in the Chicago area, but it says interesting things about where the Swiss-based food giant Nestlé thinks some trends in protein consumption are headed — for both pets and people.
When it comes to food production, forecasts abound describing how, as world population and wealth climb, growing demands for meat will strain existing resources. But switching meat production from traditional livestock to insects, for instance, uses less food, water and energy than what is required to produce an equivalent amount of protein in larger animals.
In a recent interview with the Post-Dispatch, Nestlé Purina PetCare officials in St. Louis — the headquarters for the company’s U.S. and Latin American operations — said RootLab’s eye-catching foray into “alternative protein” is not a direct response to an unfolding global scramble for protein. Instead, they said it is simply an effort to meet increasing consumer demand for those types of products.
“This protein crunch is widely known,” said Jack Scott, Purina’s vice president of sustainability and responsible sourcing. “Different segments of consumers within the marketplace are looking for opportunities to buy products that maybe alleviate or reduce their need for animal protein sources.”
For both human and pet food, that has sparked industry-wide exploration of substitutes, ranging from plant-based protein, to insects, or invasive pest species, like Asian carp.
“Key meat suppliers and providers in the human space are heavily investing in other protein spaces,” said Julie Leeds, a senior manager of strategic planning at Purina, whose team watches the human side of the industry to see what trends might influence the pet food business. “They are not saying that they’re going to walk away from traditional meat by any means, but they’re just recognizing that consumers demand choice.”
Talk about “protein insecurity,” though, takes center stage in an explanatory video on RootLab’s website, outlining the origin story behind its cricket-based dog food.
“Experts expect we’re going to need to double the amount of food we need to feed the human population in the future,” the video says. “We don’t want to ever get to a position where we need to choose between feeding a pet and feeding a human…. We know using crickets as food is different, but we think this is important as the population continues to grow and resources become more scarce.”
Purina says its existing supply chains largely avoid competition with human uses for food, through use of protein- and nutrient-rich byproducts, like animal organs, that aren’t eaten in the U.S., where most of its sourcing is done.
Complementary protein sources that minimize overlap with human consumption are a staple of the initial releases from RootLab, billed as “a new sustainably focused dog food brand” from Purina. The crickets used in its “chicken, egg and cricket” variety come from a company in Canada. The Asian carp, meanwhile, is “sourced from a family-run Illinois fishery,” Purina said. Another offering features “chicken organs” as the headline ingredient.
Some outside experts think that Purina could be on to something, particularly with its openness to evaluate insect-based protein options.
“If Purina wants to be serious about this, yes, it could be a very good thing for them to do,” said Florence Dunkel, a professor at Montana State University’s College of Agriculture.
Dunkel helps organize an annual “Bug Buffet” at the school — an event that goes back 31 years and is dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of agriculture by showcasing edible insects. Listing ecological advantages and nutritional benefits, she said it might make sense for Purina to get “on the wave” of insect protein for reasons spanning both consumer choice and sustainability, if not long-term necessity.
“It will do nothing but rise,” she said. “It has benefits and there’s not much of a downside.”
“Crickets are twice as efficient in converting feed to meat as chicken, at least four times more efficient than pigs, and 12 times more efficient than cattle,” according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And if insects are raised on waste produce, Dunkel says, they effectively require zero extra water use, compared to the more than 2,600 gallons of water needed for a pound of beef. Other robust advantages exist in the realms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
The only barrier, Dunkel says, is the psychological attitude that Western society has against eating insects. But she thinks that can be overcome thanks to the “nutrient-dense” qualities of insect protein, especially among pet owners looking out for their dogs’ health.
“What is going to push people past that psychological barrier?” she asks. “The environmental argument is very compelling. I think when push comes to shove, the nutritional argument will be stronger for people, but they’re both very strong.”
Cricket-based protein is indeed gaining popularity across the U.S. Recent agriculture and biotech conferences around St. Louis have attracted multiple startup companies focused within the emerging industry, and for signs that it may be entering the mainstream, look no further than professional sports. In 2017, for instance, teams like the Seattle Mariners and Atlanta Hawks began selling cricket products at their concession stands. Reportedly the Mariners routinely sold out of their cricket offerings and had to impose a limit of orders per game.
Purina is watching closely to see how the RootLab products perform in the marketplace, though some officials indicated that they are finding traction with customers.
The long-term outlook for the company, and for the pet food industry overall, still faces big questions about protein procurement — ones with answers that are yet to be determined.
“Who knows what it’s going to look like 30 years from now, as the population maxes out,” said Scott, who added that the company has some research projects that look as far out as 2050. “But I can say we’re at a point where we’re taking those initial steps to think long-term, to think broadly, and consider all options. We recognize that this is a very, very important topic, not just for ourselves, but for everybody on this planet.”
Scott, at least, expressed optimism that innovation and investment focused on agricultural sustainability will “be able to meet everybody’s needs.”
But the globe’s “protein crunch” and other forces like climate change present challenges, whether on land, or by sea.
“I’m not going to go into global warming, but what I will tell you is water temperature has changed, and I know because my fish moved,” said Joy Carter, Purina’s vice president of procurement and a former leader of its fish and seafood category. “That’s a very big ocean, so where does that supplier, that migrating pattern of fish, go to marry up to that? There’s challenges around it.”
When asked if there’s ample room for the planet to meet future protein demand or if it will be a tight squeeze, Carter said companies like Purina simply need to adapt as changes warrant.
“It’s going to evolve,” she said. “As it evolves, our task is to evolve with it.”