Leather, etc: Animal product, or byproduct?
January 29, 2008 9:57 AM   Subscribe

How do I know if something is an animal product, or a by-product that exists only because the animal was killed for other reasons?

I am a vegetarian, and while it's partially because I just don't want to eat meat, it's also due to the huge impact that the meat industry has on our environment and economy.

However, I'm not particularly upset by the notion of animal products, and so long as animals are dying for meat, the use of the whole is a positive notion to me.

What I'm wondering though, is whether animals are killed for these products, or if these are byproducts, additional bonuses to be harvested.

For instance: Meat & fur are obvious primary products. Gelatin is an obvious byproduct.

Needing clarification:

Leather: are there leather cows, or is this just made from the hides of meat cattle?
Rennet: are animals killed for rennet, or is this just harvested from calves and lambs slaughtered for meat?

Am I forgetting any other major products? For instance, hunting whales for oil seems abominable to me, but use of gelatin seems like just plain common sense given the booming meat industry.
posted by explosion to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
To a certain extent, some of these products would be produced from animals even if the animals' meat were not eaten. A cost-effective 'perfect' artificial leather is still elusive, for instance, so leather would likely still be taken from animals.

Gelatin and rennet can be made artificially (or at least not from animals). To the extent that one chooses to buy products containing gelatin and rennet of animal origin, one is subsidizing the meat industry. In theory, if no one purchased meat industry byproducts, the price of meat would go up (or profits would go down), and ultimately fewer animals would be raised for slaughter. I suspect the byproducts are a relatively small part of the value of animal, however, and so the effect would be small even if there were a total boycott.

To sum up, to the extent that you are a vegetarian because the meat industry is bad for the environment or the economy, not buying animal byproducts is unlikely to make much of a difference, especially on a small scale.
posted by jedicus at 10:13 AM on January 29, 2008

To answer your other specific question: rennet is basically a byproduct of the veal industry, which is basically a byproduct of the dairy industry. Like other mammals, cows do not give milk unless they calve. Rather than raising the calves to maturity, it is often more economical to slaughter them as calves, which results in calf leather, veal, and rennet.

As a side note, rennet is taken from young goats and lambs as well as calves. As you might suspect, the rennet of a particular species is best suited for producing cheese from the milk of that species. Since commercial cows are much more damaging to the environment than goats or sheep, you might consider using more goat and sheep's milk cheeses instead of cow's milk cheeses.

As for gelatin, it is pretty easily produced from non-animal sources. As far as I know all kosher gelatin-containing products use non-animal gelatin, for example. Rather than have separate kosher and non-kosher lines, lots of manufacturers just make a single kosher line. Thus, I'm not so sure that using animal gelatin is "just plain common sense."

Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I'm not vegetarian.
posted by jedicus at 10:24 AM on January 29, 2008

Response by poster: When I said gelatin is "common sense", I mean that there are are a lot more hooves, bones, and hide scraps to boil into gelatin due to meat production, than the market for gelatin. It just makes sense that there isn't a farmer in the world thinking, "I'm going to raise this cow and kill it for gelatin!"

On the other hand, it seemed possible that one might raise a certain breed of cattle specifically for their hides, with the meat being a secondary thought.
posted by explosion at 10:31 AM on January 29, 2008

I'm not a vegetarian, but it's important to realize that using animal by-products is still encouraging the killing use of animals for meat by subsidizing their production. If the demand for leather goes down (by you not buying it), the price will go down; when farmers aren't getting as much for their hides, they'll compensate for this by increasing meat prices; that in turn leads to lower meat consumption and fewer animals involved in the meat industry. I wouldn't discourage you from making a reasonable compromise here, but the "by-product" distinction is an artificial one.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:59 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

but the "by-product" distinction is an artificial one.

It's no more artificial than when Buddhists that won't kill anything buy meat that someone else has killed. Once the animal is dead it would be wasteful to not make use of it.

This page discusses the issue of vegeterianism in buddhism which is similar to the question you're asking, but from a Buddhist perspective.
posted by GuyZero at 11:06 AM on January 29, 2008

It's no more artificial than when Buddhists that won't kill anything buy meat that someone else has killed.

Are you saying that Buddhists also make a similar artificial distinction, or that because Buddhists make a similar distinction that it isn't artificial?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:37 AM on January 29, 2008

I mean the latter, although I certainly don't speak for all (or any) Buddhists. IMO, 0xFCAF uses the term "artifical" as a pejorative to try to make the distinction between meat and meat by-products unimportant. My opinion is that distinction is as important as you want it to be and isn't any more artifical than the distinction between killing an animal youself vs having someone else kill it for you.
posted by GuyZero at 11:44 AM on January 29, 2008

2nding 0xFCAF. There isn't a pure and simple "meat" industry, there's just complex market for animal body parts. The suggestion that an animal might be killed for the sirloin but not for the snout strikes me as silly. The animal is killed for the money, and virtually every bit of it has some value. The fact that some parts are more valuable, pound for pound, is immaterial.
posted by jon1270 at 11:57 AM on January 29, 2008

Best answer: so you are in favor of using the parts of the animal once it used for someone else's meat consumption? i don't quite agree with that logic but i suppose i sort of get it.
as other posters have said though, you are still supporting/subsidizing the "dead animals industry" by using the pieces. you make the meat that that animal was killed for cheaper as there are now 2 (or 3 or 4 or 10) things that they can get from that carcass so they can charge less for the fleshy bits.

kosher gelatin is made from fish, which, to me, are still animals. now i do not know if those fish are killed just for that purpose or not but i would doubt it.
several people have mentioned how easy non-animal gelatin is produced from non-animal sources, but i have been vegetarian for about 15 years and have never seen that product. yes, there are things you can substitute but they are not gelatin.

but to answer your question, from what i know, yes, meat and leather and fur and fins and skin are primary products, gelatin and rennet are not. usually.
posted by annoyance at 12:15 PM on January 29, 2008

My opinion is that distinction is as important as you want it to be

I think this might be the best response to 0xFCAF's comment. A lot of people would say that the distinction between killing an animal yourself or using products from a killed animal is an artificial one, and then people get into ideological/ethical arguments about this distinction. In the present case (and probably in most real life cases) the asker has made their personal distinction, artificial or not, and just wants some information to help in implementing it.

As far as animal products go, this is all I could come up with:
skins (snake, crocodile, seal, ...)
horns/bones (although some horns can be harvested without harming the animal)
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:16 PM on January 29, 2008

Best answer: In the last week (can't remember the day) I was watching a documentary about the cattle slaughter industry (on some cable channel like discovery) and they mentioned that over 95% (I don't remember the exact number but it was between 96 and 98%) of the cow is put to use, very little is waste. This makes financial sense, it costs a sizable amount of money to raise livestock which are then sold by the pound, you would want to get as much use.money as possible out for every pound.
posted by estronaut at 12:22 PM on January 29, 2008

Solution: leather boots from the thrift store. Good leather lasts a long time.
posted by melissam at 12:25 PM on January 29, 2008

Being primarily a synthetic chemicaltarian, I am personally appalled by how savagely we treat animals AND plants. Every year, billions of living plants are killed, disfigured, abused, and beheaded; with their potential offspring forcibly ripped from their bodies to satisfy man's unabatable appetite for chlorophyll enriched sustinence...now of course thats a joke, I'm kidding!

I think I see the meat of your question here. I'm pretty sure most U.S. live stock are consumed to their fullest, as long as there are potentially viable markets a farmer can tap into (or as long as it's profitable and useful...eg. if no one will buy a pig's head it will be disposed of...but even then it could still be mulched into some kind of chow...scrapple anyone? mystery meat hotdogs?). But, and this is a big but..there will be substantial waste involved in all consumable processes...there's always a 3lb liver that no one buys off the walmart butcher's display..that's its final destination before being tossed. However, also consider this...plants as well as animals are highly biodegradable and return to nourishing the earth regardless, whether they are processed by human digestive systems, made use of in a product, or simply discarded as a meal for our smaller earthen inhabitants...yes we still love those little guys but only if they stay out of our comfortable climate controlled houses.

You also should consider that there's always going to be a wasteful death of an animal involved in the creation of any man-made product, even inadvertently. (eg. like the squirrels that get fried seeking warmth near high voltage transformers powering meat processing plants). Workers at said processing plant, can also be personally wasteful fueling their bodies to perform their duties (like not finishing their plates and throwing half their delicious angus steaks away).

Don't get me wrong, I see where the sensitivity of this post lies...it's not the environmental impact, but more of the anthropomorphic values that tend to be assigned to living creatures close to our own genus (usually mammals, fish, reptiles, and birds...less so insects, bacteria, fungus and plants...those are of course...fair game).

I think the Native Americans that once lived in the same spot that my air-conditioned office now sits had it right; honor the spirits of the animals hunted, always be thankful and respectful, as they are what enable us to survive.
posted by samsara at 12:32 PM on January 29, 2008

IMO, 0xFCAF uses the term "artifical" as a pejorative

It's not a pejorative, it's a fact. The Buddhist distinction between someone else killing it vs you killing it is also entirely artificial. There's nothing wrong with that - making it "important as you want it to be" is the correct answer.

My point was that you can't distinguish between product and by-products any more than you could taste the difference between meat that came from a cow you killed rather than a cow that someone else killed for you.

If a farmer buys a cow for $50, butchers it, and makes $40 from meat, $40 from leather, and $40 from gelatin, which is the by-product? He presumably would have slaughtered the cow anyway in the absence of any one of those products, so now you can ethically consume all of them. If you change it to $100 from meat, $60 from leather, and $10 from gelatin, does that change your answer? At what point do the answers change?

You can use this logic to justify anything: I can ethically eat filet since certainly the cow would certainly would still be slaughtered for the rest of the meat anyway. Filet is just a by-product of the slaughtering process that happens to be a delicious cut of beef. Letting the filet go to waste would be a terrible thing, no?
posted by 0xFCAF at 12:47 PM on January 29, 2008

Response by poster: I do understand the economics of it, and how purchase of byproducts indirectly supports production of additional animals. For me, it was the notion that consuming 1000 pounds of meat inherently requires a marginal cow to produce that meat, while consuming gelatin or rennet perhaps only puts money into the system thereby lowering costs or raising profits.

I'm also aware that writing my legislators and hoping to eliminate food/cattle subsidies will do more to impact the market than my dietary habits ever will.

Primarily, I know that if I ate a steak, a cow [b]had[/b] to die for that steak, that there wasn't a bunch of beef just lying around as surplus. On the other hand, so long as people are eating steak, I may as well be using leather, because it's a very durable and nice material that's going to be around whether or not I use it.

Also, samsara, I think you're mistaking my intent. I find cows pretty disgusting and unattractive, and I'm pretty far from an animal lover. What I really want is an overall reduction in the cattle population as American cattle farming practices are a drain on our economy via subsidies, and environmentally unsound due to waste practices. The selfish part of me that doesn't care about the environment or economy would still crave steak if meat in America wasn't so generally disgusting. The Argentinian beef article linked in the "fresh foods of yesteryear" AskMe from a couple of days ago had me almost drooling.
posted by explosion at 12:54 PM on January 29, 2008

I couldn't find a good reference for this, bug according to some vegan, the leather component is actually significant:
That arguably helps the cause of veganism even more than changing your diet because a large fraction of the economic value of a cow is in the leather produced from its skin.
So maybe your use of leather is actually ethically subsidizing my consumption of meat (I don't have hard numbers here)
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:00 PM on January 29, 2008

explosion, I think the problem is the 'only' in "...only puts money into the system thereby lowering costs or raising profits." Those lowered costs and raised profits are factors in the decision producers make about how many cows to raise. The additional revenue from secondary products makes it profitable to raise more cows than would be raised if that revenue wasn't available.
posted by jon1270 at 1:03 PM on January 29, 2008

A simple test occurs to me: the "products" you're looking for would be precisely the parts of the animal that you could get for free, or be paid to haul away from the abattoir.
posted by jon1270 at 1:29 PM on January 29, 2008

First off, I think we're really in agreement 0xFCAF although I think that by your logic every distinction becomes artificial. But that's not really the issue here.

At what point do the answers change?

My understanding is that meat packers actually PAY people to take away the junk that is used to make gelatin. The breakdown is $100 leather, $80 meat and $-10 gelatin. The reason is that it would cost meat packers $20 to bury it or burn it (it's probably illegal just to burn it actually) so it's cheaper to give it to a gelatin processor even though it still costs them money.

So I guess the OP is in some way asking which things get used when they would have otherwise been thrown away - if it costs the meat producer something as opposed to earning them money, it's ethical. Per jon1270's last comment.
posted by GuyZero at 2:37 PM on January 29, 2008

Blood and Bone, honey...
Goes on the garden to grow the vegetables.
*shock* ...not my vegetables.
Unless you grow your own - then yes, your vegetables too.

(Btw I do think it's absolutely awful. Don't click those links! If you did any research I suspect you'd be horrorfied too.)

Oh no - on preveiw this would make you happy, my mistake. Then no, click away, they don't waste a drop!

And then it should cheer you up to know that apparently whale oil is old hat! They are *god I can't even say it* - and then the rest is rendered. The Ambergris trade is up and running again these days too. So there you go.
Waste not want not.. as they say.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 5:07 PM on January 29, 2008

Not to stir the pot here, but as food for thought, I'd be curious to know what percentage of vegetable products are used and what goes to waste? Does everything go to silage? Does the chaff just get burned?
posted by Pollomacho at 6:13 PM on January 29, 2008

This is a little late and off topic: You mention rennet in cheese. Cheese is a dairy product. Dairy is just as gross, cruel, wasteful, and unhealthy as meat. The rennet seems like a moot point.
posted by low affect at 5:03 PM on February 3, 2008

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