There are few more profound buzz words in the animal food community than by-product. By far and away, this is the number one thing I hear from clients when asked about diets—they are quick to say their food is all natural, it has no by-products.
I was in Whole Foods yesterday and I was getting a vegan carrot cake. I asked the baker if I could get something written on it—“Yes, but it will have animal by-product.” He said it so non-chalantly, as if this isn’t a trigger phrase. I asked, “what makes it by-product?” He answered, “there are eggs and egg whites and things like that.” Fine, that seems harmless…and it is harmless. But it was just an interesting use of the term that has become so maligned. How did it become so nefarious?
First I think we need to think about what meat means. Meat is muscle. This means it is skeletal muscle like quadriceps and gluteus, and muscle that is found in tongue, diaphragm, heart, esophagus with or without the overlying fat/skin, nerve, blood vessels that normally accompany flesh. Meat does not include lips, snouts or ears—though these are bought in pet stores as delicacy treats. By-Product consists of rendered clean parts of a carcass which in the example of chickens is neck, undeveloped eggs that were “in utero”, intestines, but NOT feathers, blood, beaks, nails, nervous system, or intestinal contents.
A lot of pet websites are disturbed by meats not being “fit for human consumption” being in dog food. Not “fit” does not mean that it is toxic to humans, but that our culture does not tend to value these parts of the body for food—these include liver, feet (not hooves–though these are also sold as a treat in pet stores), cleaned intestines (actually our culture does use intestines as casing for sausage).
When I think about this, I think that a clean healthy carcass is being used to its maximum potential and teaches us to value a whole being. While some parts aren’t appetizing to us, that doesn’t mean they are worthless, and in fact, they may be some of the highest valued nutrients in the body. When we buy boneless skinless chicken, the skin, the bones and the fat become a byproduct which can be used for other things. It is a full use of resources. These byproducts make so many things we use daily—cosmetics, foods, medications, heart valve implants, blood vessel implants.
To me, the term by-product has become a marketing term. Food companies tout no by-product, but side step this by using the actual organ in their ingredient list—so instead of chicken by-product, they say chicken liver, chicken kidney, chicken heart, chicken fat—this is all about word choice, not nutrients. One of the most popular treats around is the bully stick—this is bull penis, which is a byproduct. Many foods contain beef tripe—this is one of the compartments of the cow’s stomach. They are clean are worthy parts of the animal for consumption. But again, it comes down to word choice.