Whether it’s something obvious such as meat, or perhaps a surprising case like plywood, many of the goods we buy contain ingredients that fall under the category of “animal products” or “animal byproducts.”
According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS], a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], animal products are materials derived from the body of an animal.
The list of specific parts and substances include:
- rennet (the stomach contents of an unweaned animal, usually a calf)
- gelatin (usually comes from collagen in various animal body parts)
- Jell-O (protein derived from skin and bones of certain animals)
The food industry is only one of the business sectors that use animal products. Because of their low cost and versatility, manufacturers incorporate these ingredients in everything from soap and sausage to cosmetics and cellos. To reduce waste and boost profits, rendering plants and slaughterhouses often sell their leftovers to brands.
There are way too many specific animal products to list in this article. If you are determined to peruse all of them, however, PETA has a massive glossary of animal-derived ingredients.
Below are a few of the types of goods that tend to contain animal products, along with their corresponding ingredients and the animals they come from:
- meat (obviously)
- soap: animal fat and tallow from various mammals
- beer: Isinglass, chemical found in fish bladders
- perfume: castoreum, from beaver glands located near their tails
- plastic bags: chemicals called “slip agents” that come from stearic acid in animal fat
- Downy: derivative of rendered farm animals
- sugar: sometimes includes bone char from animal ashes
- condoms: protein from animal milk acts as lubricant
- nail polish: guanine from fish scales
- crayons: animal fat
- cake mixes: beef fat
- red food dye: carmine, comes from red beetles
- omega 3 fatty acids in juice and milk: from fish
- bagels: L-cysteine, from bird feathers and some human and hog hair
- instrument strings: catgut (despite the name, it comes from the intestines of sheep and goats, not cats)
- hair on bows for string instruments: animal hair, usually horses
- paint brushes: animal hair
The European Commision has a similar definition of animal products but instead utilizes the term, “products of animal origin [POAO].”
What Are Animal Byproducts?
According to the American Meat Science Association [AMSA], animal byproducts, sometimes called offal, are the parts of an animal that are leftover after a butcher or slaughterhouse has harvested meat. Because the definitions of animal products and animal byproducts are similar, manufacturers often use the terms synonymously or in the same breath.
In addition to the uses listed above, animal byproducts can serve as materials for leather and other textiles, pet food, animal feed, industrial lubricants, biodiesel fuel and medicine, among many other purposes. Despite these examples, it’s also common for people to eat certain animal byproducts such as pig ears and feet. Several cultures rely on these parts for certain dishes.
Europeans, however, have different ideas about animal byproducts. The European Commission defines “animal by-products [ABPs]” (hyphenation and acronyms vary by country and region) as “materials of animal origin that people do not consume.” Their examples are limited to:
- Animal feed – e.g. based on fishmeal and processed animal protein
- Organic fertilizers and soil improvers – e.g. manure, guano, processed OF/SI on the base of processed animal protein
- Technical products – e.g. pet food, hides and skins for leather, wool, blood for producing diagnostic tools
In Europe there are not as many consumers who eat parts of animals other than the primary sources of meat (usually muscle and organs). There are also more regulations on the meat industry and use of animal parts in other industries.
Language Confusion: USDA vs. FDA
Despite the USDA stating that animal products are materials derived from the body of an animal, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] seems to have conflicting notions regarding the term. On their web page about regulating animal products, the FDA lists several examples, including pesticides, “veterinary biologics” (animal medicine), pet foods, animal medical devices and animal grooming aids.
The FDA doesn’t have an official definition for animal products. Based on their examples, however, it seems they define the phrase as products that are for animals, but not necessarily made of them. The exception is pet food because it often consists of both meat and animal byproducts.
Because both the FDA and USDA regulate food, the organizations sometimes debate who should have more authority over certain products, said Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director at the Center for Food Safety. This power struggle can cause some confusion regarding cases such as animal products.
There isn’t a single correct usage. Depending on context, both uses of the term can be logical and easy to understand.
On product labels, animal products or byproducts almost always refers to ingredients derived from animals. When people talk about buying or ordering animal products, however, they usually mean purchasing something to take care of or feed pets, zoo animals or animals at a veterinary clinic.
What To Do If You Want to Avoid Animal Products and Byproducts
If you want to avoid animal products and byproducts for moral or dietary reasons, the easiest way is to only buy items with claims about veganism: vegan-friendly, vegan, certified vegan, etc. In rare cases the label will simply say, “does not contain animal products or byproducts.”
Without these types of phrases, the process of boycotting animal products and byproducts becomes much more difficult and time-consuming. If you want to stay vigilant, you’ll need to research every ingredient you aren’t familiar with.
Another option is searching online for vegan brands by using databases and lists such as Vegan.org. This method has some limitations, though. Not every brand you like is going to have a vegan certification or a wealth of information on which of their products are vegan.
Pet food is one case where attempting to exclude animal products and byproducts is not necessarily practical, ethical or responsible.
“Trying to feed a cat a vegan diet would be like me feeding my horses meat,” said Lew Olsen, Ph.D., author of “Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs.” You’re taking a whole species of animal and trying to force it to eat something it isn’t designed to handle.”
Veterinarian Cailin Heinze is also strongly opposed to vegan cat food. It’s possible to feed a dog vegan pet food, Heinze said, but this process is risky and difficult.
The subject is still up for debate, though. Others authors, veterinarians and organizations, including PETA, have endorsed meatless pet food and cited research that indicates it might be part of a healthy diet.
With every other product, the issue of animal-derived ingredients is all about what you’re comfortable with. If you want to take yourself out of the slaughtering equation and don’t mind having less product and food options, animal products and byproducts are ingredients you can easily live without. Leading a plant-based diet and being conscious of what you consume can go a long way.
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