Unless it is certified “organic”, “pasture-raised” or “grass-fed/grass-finished”, the meat and milk that you buy at the supermarket or that you consume at restaurants comes from animals that were fed animal proteins. Such proteins are produced through “rendering” animal wastes including slaughterhouse wastes (heads, feet, horns, bones, blood, hides, feathers, offal, etc.), animals that died before slaughter, supermarkets and restaurants refuse, as well as waste from animal farms including manure and poultry litter.
Banning the use of all rendered animal by-products in animal feed would ensure that food-producing animal are raised with best animal husbandry practices. This typically leads to an increase in the price of animal products (meat, milk, eggs). However, healthy food animals that are fed their natural diet eventually cost less in terms of their impact on the environment and on public health. Also, the increase in price can lead to a healthy reduction in the consumption of animal products—especially red meat.
Feeding rendered animal-waste products to food-producing animals is by no means a modern invention. Nor is it limited to North-America. The idea was first published in a French essay in 1830. It was not lost on German chemist Justus von Liebig, the same fellow who recognized the possibility of substituting chemical fertilizers for natural ones, and who invented the nitrogen-based fertilizer. He developed a method to process carcasses into a dry powder that could be transported over long distances, and fed to hogs. In 1912, Swift and Company, a Chicago meatpacker, became the first to mass-manufacture rendered protein and fat as animal feed. It was not long before such cheap feed, that was shown to increase growth rates and feed-conversion efficiencies in omnivorous animals like pigs and chickens, was given to herbivores including cattle and horses.
Rendering is a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S.. It produces over 8 million tons of products per year, including meat and bone meal, tallow, poultry byproduct meal, blood meal, and feather meal. Renderers supply feed mills, as well as biofuel producers, soap manufacturers and the oleo chemical industry.
Feeding rendered animal-waste products to food-producing animals is an aberration designed to optimize the bottom-line of the industry. It does so at the expense of the well-being and health of both animals and consumers. Antibiotics, pathogens and any undesirable agent that was allowed to enter the food chain at some point are transmitted from one carrier to a multitude of feeders, potentially causing damage along the way and requiring more antibiotics, and journeying all the way to the top feeders: humans.
The risks inherent to the common, inhumane practice of feeding animal waste to animals were brought to light by the epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease, that first affected British herds in the 1980s. The fatal neurodegenerative disease causes a spongy degeneration in the brain and spinal cord. A British inquiry into BSE concluded that the infectious agent was spread by feeding cattle, who are naturally herbivores, the remains of other animals in the form of meat and bone meal, including scrapie-carrying sheep and BSE-infected cattle. In 1996, the world was shocked to learn that exposure to contaminated beef was responsible for the spread of the infectious disease to humans. The British immediately prohibited feeding the rendered remains of any mammals to all food animals.
On their end, the United States and Canada started in 1997 adopting comparable legislation in response to the BSE threat. They prohibit feeding cattle “any protein derived from mammalian animals”. With quite a few exceptions, however: “ blood and blood products; gelatin; tallow containing no more than 0.15 percent insoluble impurities (…); inspected meat products which have been cooked and offered for human food and further heat processed for feed (such as plate waste and used cellulosic food casings); milk products (milk and milk proteins); and any product whose only mammalian protein consists entirely of porcine or equine protein.”
In other words, beef and dairy cows can still be fed poultry, horse and swine proteins (including poultry litter), as well as cattle proteins with some restrictions. Meanwhile, all other animals, including pigs and poultry, can still be fed the unsavory diet detailed at the top of this page—including from their own species.
Critics rightly pointed out that the risk of BSE contamination was still present, since non-ruminants being fed proteins from cows infected with BSE could be rendered into proteins fed to… cattle. Hence the 2008 regulation 589.2001 that prohibits the use of high-risk cattle material in feed for all animal species (carcasses of BSE-positive cattle, brains and spinal cords from cattle 30 months of age and older, etc.). This measure has enabled the feeding of rendered animal waste to food-producing animals, including herbivores, to continue unabated.
In Europe, the public panic spurred by the BSE fright eventually forced the public authorities to take more drastic steps. Several years after the UK ban was enacted, the European Union implemented a temporary ban, effective January 1st, 2001, on the use of all animal protein in livestock rations (with the exception of fishmeal for non-ruminants, and of milk and milk products for all food-production animals). In October 2002, the EU revised its ban, and somewhat relaxed it. Its legislation 1774/2002 states that “ products derived from animals declared unfit for human consumption must not enter the food chain . Moreover, the administration to any animal of proteins obtained by processing carcasses of the same species – or cannibalism – may constitute an additional risk of disease propagation.”
Europeans consumers ought to remain vigilant, however: ten years later, national governments are exploring the possibility of relaxing some of the measures taken to bring BSE under control.