Transcript for Episode 17: Because Animals – Lab-Grown Meat (Mini)

This is the transcript of Episode 17: Because Animals – Lab-Grown Meat (Mini) of the How to Make a Difference podcast. Go to the episode page to listen to this episode and for the show notes. Furthermore, we encourage you to read our blog post on climate-friendly pet parenting.

Chinmai Gupta: Hey everyone. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Hey everyone. 

Chinmai Gupta: This is our third episode in our pet parenting series, and today we’re talking to a really exciting company that grows lab-based meat. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: And if you’re new to the show, we really recommend that you listen to episodes 15 and 16. In episode 15 – so that’s the first episode on climate-friendly parenting – we really dive deep into the climate impact of pets and pet food. 

Chinmai Gupta: For example, did you know that a fourth of the meat consumed in the US is consumed by pets? 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: And last week, we spoke with a company that has a very strong focus on raising animals humanely. So check out those episodes as well. 

Chinmai Gupta: And before we jump into the interview, we wanted to tell you that we now have our first patron on Patreon. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yay!

Chinmai Gupta: Thank you, Luke. We love you. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: You’re our favorite listener now.

Chinmai Gupta: No. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Okay, we love all our listeners. 

Chinmai Gupta: Yeah, we do. But maybe we love Luke a bit more. 

All right, so let’s start with the interview with Shannon from Because Animals.

Interview with Shannon Falconer: 1:51

Elisabeth Ignasiak: We’re speaking with Shannon Falconer, today. She is the CEO and the co-founder of Because Animals. Welcome Shannon!

Chinmai Gupta: Welcome Shannon!

Shannon Falconer: Thank you! Thank you for having me!

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and what you do, please?

Shannon Falconer: Yeah, sure. So I’m a biochemist by training. And while I was working as a postdoctoral researcher, I decided that I wanted to dedicate my scientific training to taking animals out of the supply chain. And it was at that point that we started the company, Because Animals, which is making cultured meat, which is meat grown without the animal, for our pets.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: And can you maybe just start with, because animals, and the type of products that you currently sell and what makes because animals special?

Shannon Falconer: Yeah. You know meat is the central ingredient in pet food, our cats and dogs evolved eating it, and in the wild, that’s the only single source of complete nutrition for cats. But of course, meat, for both people and for their pets… the production of meat comes with some devastating consequences. So climate change, the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, animal abuses… it is a very long list for a single industry. And so this is where, Because Animals comes in. We recognise the nutritional value of meat, especially when it comes to feeding our cats and dogs. And so for this reason we are not actually creating a meat alternative. We are creating meat. We are just making it in an alternative means. And by that I mean we’re actually growing it in a bioreactor as opposed to harvesting it from an animal. 

So, that’s the culture of meat, that’s the part that we’re currently working on. And we do nonetheless have some products available at the moment. We do have a cultured supplement for cats and dogs. Our cultured supplement is a probiotic base supplement, and we have a cultured dog cookie as well made with nutritional yeast. 

And so we’re using these other cultured ingredients that people are already familiar with the health benefits of, to basically tell the story of what cultured meat is. 

And so basically what we’re encouraging people to do is sort of think about it and understand it as actually a product that you’re probably already taking yourself, or feeding to your pets like probiotics or nutritional yeast. But instead, we’re just growing that animal cell, rather than a bacterial or a yeast cell in a bioreactor, and then harvesting it to include in pet food.

Chinmai Gupta: Lab-grown meat is one of the most exciting innovations that I’ve heard of, in recent times. Especially being a vegetarian and having strong concerns around the ethics of eating meat and the environmental damage. So do your current products include any sort of meat at the moment?

Shannon Falconer: Nope, they don’t. At the moment we have our supplement for cats… one for cats, one for dogs and our nutritionally spaced dog cookies. They do not contain any meat. 

Cats are in the wild considered obligate carnivores. So our first cultured product that we will release will be a cultured mouse cat treat. And the reason for this is, in the wild cats eat mice, they eat small birds, and they eat small insects. Although most pet food does use either chicken, or beef protein, or meat, those also happened to be the main allergens for our cats and dogs. They’re simply included in pet food because those are leftovers from the human food supply chain. So, in culturing meat, we really saw this as an opportunity to create the protein source that is most evolutionarily appropriate for pets. And so that would be most for cats and we’re working on a rabbit for dogs.

Elisabeth Ignasiak:  I really like that you’re not just growing, you know, cow meat in the lab, but it’s actually the protein from the… the animal they would normally eat. That’s really interesting. Maybe just for… for listeners who are not familiar with that term: Can you quickly explain what probiotics are?

Shannon Falconer: Yeah. Probiotics are bacteria that are thought to be beneficial to the consumer. So basically, our bodies, all, everything that is alive, is colonised by billions of cells of bacteria, whether it’s on the skin, or in the gut. And many of those types, of the species of bacteria, actually exert beneficial effects on their host. So by growing, you know, large quantities of certain bacteria and then we either take them, or we feed them to our pets, they can, in turn, have some beneficial effects such as helping with gastrointestinal disorders, which the probiotic that we use has been clinically shown to do.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: So it helps with the digestion I’m assuming?

Shannon Falconer: That’s right. Yeah, exactly. 

Chinmai Gupta: Thank you for that. And can you tell us what other ingredients are you using for your pet food, and where do you source these ingredients from?

Shannon Falconer: All of our products or ingredients are sourced from… because we are a US-based company… all of our ingredients are sourced from either the US or Canada, with the exception of: We do include some turmeric powder in our supplement that comes from India. If we can get ingredients that are local, then we absolutely do that.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. I think I read on your website that your ingredients, most of them are organic? Is that true, or to what extent do you use organic ingredients?

Shannon Falconer: Most of them are organic. Yes. So our dog cookie is certified organic, our supplement at the moment is not, but nonetheless, most of the ingredients in there are organic. 

Chinmai Gupta: Can you tell us a bit more about the cultured meat, and how far are you from launching?

Shannon Falconer: Sure. What we do is in a, in a one-time scenario we’ve taken some cells from an animal, in our case a mouse, and then as I mentioned we then take those cells, and we grow them in the presence of all of the vitamins, minerals, just various nutrients they need to grow. 

And… and how it’s commonly done is by growing the cells in an animal-based ingredient called foetal bovine serum or FBS. And so, there’s several big problems with that ingredient, namely that of course, it’s basically obtained from a cow before slaughter. It’s a very painful process. 

So, the first thing that we really did when we got to work was… was to develop our own media formulation that includes no animal ingredients. And as we’re continuing to optimise and refine that media, we’re, we’re dropping the price of it. By and large, the reason why cultured meat is not currently commercially available is because media – the media refers to that blend of nutrients – is very, very expensive. And so every cultured meat company is working very, very hard on actually trying to figure out and formulate a media that’s going to support the growth of their cells, at a price point that they can commercialise with. 

So we do anticipate having our media, the price point of our media, in a place where we could commercialise with it by the end of this year, in 2021

Elisabeth Ignasiak: What I’m hearing as you take a few cells from a real animal, and then you have this medium, which is basically the food for the cells, and then they eat the food, they multiply, and that’s how you have the meat.

Shannon Falconer: Exactly. Yes.

Chinmai Gupta: So you’ve been able to create that media now that is animal-free. You’re just trying to bring the price down, which should happen in the next few months?

Shannon Falconer: That’s right, yes.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: And that first cell… I mean, you mentioned, for example a mouse. So, where does… where your does your mouse come from>

Shannon Falconer: So actually the mice that we,… we started with. So we did, you could say… we’ve sort of rescued them from a typical facility that would normally breed mice for research purposes. And we took a small amount of skin from them, from their ear. And they now have been living for a year and a half, I suppose, with one of our scientists in a nice plush mouse house in her home. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: So… so basically now they’re their pets themselves.

Shannon Falconer: Yeah, they did become pets.

Chinmai Gupta: All right, and talking about something that’s closer to us, climate change: Would you happen to know the climate impact of your practices compared to standard pet food? 

Shannon Falconer: Yeah, well… what I can say is, you know, standard pet food is all made with meat. A couple of years ago actually, there was a researcher out of UCLA, who did a study and showed that more than a quarter of the environmental effects of the animal agriculture industry are directly attributable to the foods that Americans feed their cats and dogs.

It has been argued by many, that actually pet food is a sustainable industry because it only uses the leftovers from cuts of animals that people don’t want to eat. That is not entirely true. There are, in addition to the byproduct, so the parts of an animal that people don’t want to eat, there’s also this other huge segment of animals referred to as fallen animals. And so these would be the animals that die during transit due to dehydration, or suffocation, or infection. And if an animal dies before it gets to the slaughter, it cannot be sold for human consumption. So, these animals, as well as all of the other remnants of the animal that people don’t want to eat, they’re then basically sent to something called a rendering facility, where at this point these very, very heavily contaminated carcasses and cuts of meat are then subjected to very, very high heat and pressure to sterilise that meat. 

But the challenge is, you know, there’s a few things… so in being able to… to sell this… these carcasses or this meat, this is a driver… a financial driver of the animal agriculture industry. And so, in the absence of being able to sell all of these – it’s referred to as 4D meat, or animals that are dead, diseased, dying, and disabled. So, in the absence of being able to sell this 4D meat, the animal agriculture industry would actually have to pay to have it disposed of as biohazardous waste, which would be hugely costly. So, the pet food industry has actually a very huge profit arm for the animal agriculture industry. You cannot tease apart the two when you talk about sort of meat consumption from people and meat consumption by pets. They’re intricately related and pet food is a huge driver of that environmental devastation.

Chinmai Gupta: It sounds horrible, but so I understand from a logical point of view: If that meat, of the 4D, that you mentioned,… if that meat is subjected to high heat and high pressure, is that still harmful for animals to consume?

Shannon Falconer: It’s not harmful, as long as it is properly sterilised. But of course multiple times a year, the FDA does issue recalls on pet food typically due to bacterial contamination. However, they have also issued recalls on contamination by something called pentobarbital, which is a euthanizing agent. So this is a,.. an agent that’s used to of course euthanize animals. Interestingly though, it’s not an agent that’s used to euthanize pigs or cows or chicken or anything that humans eat, of course, because it’s lethal. So, how… how a euthanizing agent ended up being found in levels… detectable levels in pet food is still a big mystery, I sort of say in air quotes. So, if there’s no pentobarbital, there’s no bacterial contamination, in theory, that meat is safe for pets. 

I will say though that as a result of subjecting it to this high heat and pressure, by and large, most of the water-soluble nutrients are all lost. So those nutrients then have to be added back to the food in supplemental form. 

Chinmai Gupta: That’s really interesting. So what you’re saying is that the byproducts of meat production, which otherwise these farmers would have to pay to dispose of, but then that meat loses its nutrients because of this high heat and high pressure and those ingredients are added on top. 

What would you say to people sceptical of feeding their pets cultured meat?

Shannon Falconer: So we have our meat, it’s in a bioreactor when we harvest that meat, there’s no bacterial contamination in our bioreactors. We don’t need to sterilise our meat, and so it naturally contains most of those nutrients that would otherwise be lacking in the meat-based pet food. And so, we then basically take that meat and we combine it with other ingredients that are also in current commercial pet foods and then create that kibble or wet food pate that people and their pets are already familiar with.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: That is really fascinating that you say that your lab-grown, or facility-grown meat might actually be more nutritious and more healthy, more sterile, than, you know, what people consider a natural pet food from real animals,

Shannon Falconer: Yeah, in addition to not containing, of course, those pathogens, we also don’t have to include any antibiotics to our feed,… to our actual,… the growth of our cells. And the current antibiotic industry in the US, 80% of the antibiotics that are manufactured, are sold to the animal agriculture industry. 

And not only is this, of course, contributing to a worldwide, public health threat, what it also has been found to do, is that these trace levels of antibiotics that are left in the meat, it actually has shown to have deleterious effects on pets anyway. So, our food will also not contain any antibiotics.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. I’m sure our listeners will be very happy to learn that. So, where, where can they find you? 

Shannon Falconer: Yeah. Our website is the best place so And we have lots of information there, we have an online shop, and of course, we also have links to send us questions, if folks have them.

Chinmai Gupta: Brilliant.

Shannon Falconer: At the moment, Because Animals is still the only company that is making cultured meat, specifically for pets. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. It’s such an amazing innovation, I can’t wait for… for you to launch your product. That’s gonna be really exciting.

Shannon Falconer: Yes, thanks. We’re excited to.

Chinmai Gupta: Do you have plans, yet, of launching in Europe?

Shannon Falconer: Hopefully, knock on wood, before the next 12, to 18 months, we’ll have some presence in Europe, yes.

Chinmai Gupta: We’ll be looking out for you then. 

Shannon Falconer: Great, great.

Chinmai Gupta: Thank you very much, Shannon. It was a pleasure to have you on the show.

Shannon Falconer: Thank you very much. Very, very nice to be here.

Discussion: 16:21

Elisabeth Ignasiak: My favorite part of Because Animals’ story is that they actually use mouse cells to grow the meat for cats. That is so cool! 

Chinmai Gupta: Yes! And the mice from which they got the cells are alive and they’re pets now. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah!

Chinmai Gupta: So cute. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Mice are actually quite cute. If you have them in your house on purpose. My parents’ cat does this thing where she would bring a mouse which is still alive. And then lets it go, to play with. 

Chinmai Gupta: Oh no! 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: And then of course it hides, you know, under a… a cupboard, or whatever. And then you have this big hunt for the mouse going on. 

Chinmai Gupta: And then who finds the mouse, your cat, or your parents? 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Usually it’s one of us. So it would be my sister, or my mom, or myself, so…

Chinmai Gupta: Yes. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: By the way, what I found quite,… quite funny is that you… you turned from anti-pet-episode to someone who’s like: “This is the best episode, ever!” 

Chinmai Gupta: I say that for all of them, don’t I? But genuinely this was the best episode. And lab-grown meat is already so fascinating. But specially for pets, I find it really fascinating. It’s gonna have such a huge impact – I’m hoping – for the environment, and the climate, but also ethically. I think a lot of people, for example, a lot of people like me who are vegetarians, would not be very comfortable feeding… feeding their pets meat. So this is for people like me, but also people who want to have an impact on the environment. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah, let’s hope they’re successful. And that’s it for today. See you next week. Bye-bye. 

Chinmai Gupta: Bye-bye. 

That was so abrupt. Let’s hope they’re successful, okay now, bye.

I know you’re going to try and put that in the episode! Do not do any such thing! 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: PS: No mice were harmed during the recording of this episode.