Silkworms, innovative food for cats from Taiwan

Licking its lips imperiously, a tabby cat gulps down every last crumb of its food that remained between its curly mustache. He doesn’t seem to disgust the unusual ingredient in his dinner: silkworm chrysalis.

The 15 resident felines at Taiwan’s Mao Thai Thai cat café are among the volunteer body of tasters testing a new pet food developed by silkworm experts.

In addition to making use of what was previously only a supplement to the production of silk, scientists say that this food eliminates harmful intestinal bacteria and, consequently, reduces the odor associated with animals.

"They have more energy and less stinky stools, which is more than I expected"says the owner of the cafe, Rosa Su.

The food comes with flavors common to animals such as tuna, beef or fish, but the main protein component of this pinkish pate is this insect.

Su’s cats don’t mind, hanging around her, impatient for food.

The research team ensures that the feelings of the rest of the owners involved in the test were also positive.

More than fabrics 

At Miaoli Agricultural Research Station, the century-long institution where this food was created, hundreds of silkworms squirm on trays as they gobble up mulberry leaves.

The facility houses 136 different types of waxworms from around the world.

The chrysalis is the intermediate stage in its life cycle, in full metamorphosis from larva to adult.

"When we see silkworms, we think of silk fabrics"says researcher Liao Chiu-hsun to AFP, while trimming the upper part of a cocoon to extract a brown larva.

"But these highly domesticated insects have so much more to offer.", Add.

The larvae are rich in protein, fat and minerals, but Miaoli’s team has also developed a technique to boost their content in immune proteins that kill harmful bacteria.

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Stressing the worms and making them believe they are in danger multiplies the production of these proteins in the cocoon, which is later turned into cat food.

A new future

This innovative use of what was once a waste product may offer a new future for the latest silkworm breeders in Taiwan.

Before they were counted by the hundreds but, currently, only two remain active.

Hsu Wei-chun, a 30-year-old third-generation breeder, says it was no longer profitable to grow these insects just for fabrics.

Mulberry leaves are already used to make tea, for example. And the cocoons can have cosmetic purposes.

"Our competitiveness comes from the ability to use everything"Hsu explains. "We make a use of each thing to reduce costs", Add.

Taiwan’s pet food market presents a lucrative opportunity as animal ownership is booming and the business around it is estimated at more than $ 1 billion.

A can of silkworm cat food sells for 68 new Thai dollars ($ 2.43), little more than the price of a conventional can.

"Even though it’s a bit more expensive (…), I think the acceptance level for sustainable canned food is quite high in Taiwan"says Lee Wei-ting, head of the department of Cultural Creativity and Digital Marketing at the National United University.

Pet stores in South Korea, Japan, Thailand and the United States have already shown interest in the product.

The CEO of the company that began mass-producing this new food a month ago says the response was overwhelming.

"I have a feeling that today’s pet owners are more focused on ingredients"says Eva Liu.

"We use crowdfunding in the beginning as pre-sales. On the first day, in 24 hours, we achieved our preliminary goal", Explain.

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