More than 63 percent of households in the U.S. live with dogs and cats, and according to market research firm Packaged Facts, people are paying closer attention to their pets’ health and wellness during COVID-19. They’re especially concerned with what their pets eat, and rightfully so. Today, the U.S. pet food industry is worth around $30 billion and growing annually, but most commercial pet foods are heavily meat-based. What many pet parents don’t know, as they’re standing in the grocery store aisle trying to decide which kibble to buy for Max or Bella, is that the pet food industry is deeply tied to the environmentally unsustainable and exploitative practices of industrial animal agriculture.
Thanks to visionary companies like Wild Earth, a plant-based dog food company, pet food no longer has to depend on the destructive practices of animal agriculture. Motivated by concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of pet foods, Ryan Bethencourt and Abril Estrada co-founded Wild Earth in 2017 to create more humane and healthy options for pets. Sentient Media recently sat down with Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Wild Earth, to talk about how his company is shaking up the pet food industry.
Ingrid L. Taylor: Thank you so much for being here today, Ryan. What are some of the issues you saw in the pet food industry that led you to found Wild Earth? Was there a particular moment that really struck you?
Ryan Bethencourt: There were actually two things. One was an article published in 2017 by a scientist that showed that 25-30 percent of the meat we consume in the U.S. is fed to our pets. So, 90 percent of those meat products are turned into these little brown balls of protein and given to our pets. And it just blew my mind that 25-30 percent of the animal agriculture industry—the factory farms, the pollution, let alone how animals are treated, is used to feed our pets protein. This is something we can do without using factory farms.
And the other issue is that the meat pets are getting is low quality and sometimes mixed with other undesirable ingredients. And if you care about the health of your animals, there are much better protein sources to feed them. At the time, I was working in a biotech future of food accelerator in San Francisco and we funded a whole bunch of human food companies, like Memphis Meats (now Upside Foods). I realized if I started a pet food company that was plant-based, that could make a huge impact. It was a really under-addressed issue. There were a few plant-based pet food companies back then, but none of them had any real scale. The idea of focusing on the mass market for pet food and reducing meat consumption captured my attention.
ILT: Once you had the idea for Wild Earth, how difficult was it to get funded?
RB: I talked to a lot of venture capitalists that I knew and almost all of them said, ‘we’ll fund you to do anything else—just not this because no one cares about pets.’ I was convinced that wasn’t true at all because anyone that has a pet cares deeply about them. So I found three amazing investors that were all women, who understood how important healthy, safe, and cruelty-free food was for our pets and made the connection that a lot of male investors weren’t making.
ILT: Wild Earth currently makes a plant-based food for dogs. When you and Abril were developing this food, how important was it that not only the ingredients, but also the development process be cruelty-free?
RB: Something that shocked me was that the standard with pretty much all pet food companies, with one or two exceptions, is that they do laboratory testing of the digestion of their food using beagles. And these are just horrible tests that are common for digestion studies. In one experiment testing for digestibility, dogs are fed kibble in little sachets, like teabags. They push these down the dogs’ throats and then at certain time points, they pull them back out of the dogs’ stomachs. It’s horrible testing that no one in the pet food industry talks about. We refuse to do these tests and anything that might be cruel to animals. Instead, we did cruelty-free testing on a mixed group of dogs that pet parents volunteered. It takes longer, and the data is a little bit more mixed, but it’s more representative of a lot of our customers. We’d like to inspire more pet food companies to commit to cruelty-free testing as a standard across the industry.
ILT: A lot of what are considered byproducts from slaughter, like bones, internal organs, feathers, and blood, end up in pet food. How do you see plant-based and alt-protein pet foods intersecting with food system reform?
RB: I think we would make the price of meat more expensive—there would be no place to put the extra byproducts and no demand because we would be taking demand away. What that would mean is that raising an animal would become more expensive because those products would no longer be used in the pet food industry. We can get our pet food to scale and out-compete low-end meat products.
ILT: What are some of the benefits to dogs that you’ve seen with Wild Earth’s plant-based food?
RB: We’ve seen many improvements in animals, whether it’s reductions in allergies and skin issues or reductions in digestive issues. Plant-based foods are high in anti-inflammatory compounds, and we think that’s what’s helping dogs. If you remove the bad meat with potentially toxic ingredients and add anti-inflammatory compounds from plants and yeast, then it should reduce systemic inflammation.
One of the things that surprised us was that a lot of the pet parents reported they no longer needed to give their dogs steroids for their allergies. We did a survey of 3,000 of our customers, and 86 percent reported some positive health outcome for their pets. These results were honestly surprising when we first started, but it makes sense. Let food be thy medicine.
ILT: What are the future directions for Wild Earth?
RB: We’re looking at developing some higher-end and more cost-effective dog foods and we’re developing a plant-based cat food. This needs to be supplemented because cats are obligate carnivores, so there are a couple of supplements that will make it fully nutritionally complete for them. And then we’re also working on cell-based meat. We know that 27 percent of the population is open to a plant-based diet for their pets. That leaves the majority who want meat in their product. And we are here for the pet parents and for all of the animals. So, to deal with that majority, we’re going to make cell-based meat as an option.
We’re also researching how we can help dogs and cats live longer and healthier lives that go beyond just food. So, Wild Earth is really focused right now on cleaner, healthier, more sustainable, and cruelty-free food, but our vision is really expansive in terms of embracing science as well.
ILT: Thank you so much for your time today, Ryan. It was a pleasure talking with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.