This Colorado Lab-Grown Meat Starts With A Living Chicken (Her Name Is Inga)

March 7, 2019
Photo: Lab Grown Meat Source Chicken
Bond Pet Foods founder Rich Kelleman (center) holds the source chicken, Inga, for the line of lab-grown meat the company is testing.

Lab-grown meat, even as companies tout its environmental friendliness and animal welfare, must overcome the innate, well, "ick" factor.

That's one reason why Boulder-based Bond Pet Foods is starting with lab-grown meat for cats and dogs.

The company is a few years off from introducing its line of pet food. But Bond Pet Foods' founder, Rich Kelleman, said they would already make an impact: one study found that a quarter of all the environmental repercussions from meat production come from the pet food industry.

Kelleman makes the lab-grown meat using fermentation, in the same way cheesemakers have created an enzyme to age their cheddar or scientists have produced insulin for years. A microbe is fed a sequence of DNA from a chicken — in this case, her name is Inga, and she lives on a Kansan heritage farm — and left to reproduce that protein in bulk. The result looks a bit like baby food, Kelleman said.

Kelleman talked to Colorado Matters about the struggles and potential of lab-grown meat as part of the entrepreneur series The Disruptors.

Interview Highlights

On overcoming the "ick" factor by targetting pet food first:

"We’re creating proteins that are identical to what you might get from a conventional meat that you buy off the shelf or the conventional bag of dog food. In many ways it’s less icky than the conventional proteins in the meats that you might consume.

Chickens for example have been engineered so they grow fast and fat. Average life of chicken is 4-6 weeks in a factory farm. They can’t even stand. We’re using fermentation processes with enzymes already used in cheesemaking.

We don’t need to get that structural piece precise for cat and dog food, right? For people, when we look at a steak or hamburger, it has to have that exact mouthfeel, that smell, that taste or texture, it has to be so precise for us to embrace it."

On why lab-grown meat is a more environmentally friendly than traditional meat:

"Any company that’s in this space needs to, as we optimize our process and start formal production, conduct a complete life cycle analysis to show the comparable impacts of what we’re doing compared to conventional meat. But there are so many ways to feed and source that production in the terms of where that energy comes from.

Since all the companies in the space are relatively early in the process, there's only room to improve efficiencies. While conventional agriculture is pretty much tapped out how efficient they can get from a land, water, energy use standpoint."

On the significance of sourcing their DNA from a live, heritage farm chicken:

"We don’t necessarily need to get our genetic sequence from a live chicken. We can work through a vendor who can sequence the genome of a chicken and send us that. But for us, food is so inherently personal to people. So we wanted to, from an education standpoint, get people to understand the process, be as transparent as possible what we’re doing. We chose this chicken to represent that for the start of the process because she comes from a heritage chicken farm. The average factory farm chicken in a conventional sense lives 4-6 weeks.

This chicken is born and raised the old-fashioned way. She lives 4-6 years on the farm, and she’s raised with the utmost respect. We thought that symbolically that would also be a great place to start."

On collaborating with the conventional meat industry and agriculture:

"I understand this is disruptive to conventional food systems in the way that business has been done for generations. We see as we move forward with our venture, there’d be an opportunity for collaboration with these farmers. We need feed stock to feed our microbes and produce our products. We need sugars, we need plant-based sources for fermentation. That requires a supply chain, and farmers who can help and assist with that.

I don’t have any illusions that, especially for the foreseeable future, that conventional meat will go away. There will be room for both the options that we’re producing as well as some of the traditional meat products that are in the market today."

Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Bond Pet Foods in a photo cutline and summary.