I recently stopped to talk to someone who was selling a line of “all-natural” dog foods. One of the points she started the conversation with was:
You know by-products are the beaks and feet. Our foods don’t contain any by-products.
I was a bit thrown by her pitch. I knew that animal and meat by-products really are not beaks and feet, but I did not know exactly what by-products are. Or where to point her for the correct information. I know that foods like hot dogs and bologna often get a bad rap for being “by-products instead of real meat.” But what does that really mean? And is it even true?
So I went looking.
And it was a hard search!!
First, let’s define what we mean when we say “meat.” That will help us figure out what we mean when we talk about animal or meat “by-products.”
What you may or may not know is that plain and simple, meat is muscle. In a previous post, I showed you a picture of where on the cow the different cuts of meat come from. Muscles in different areas of the body have different properties (lean or fat, tough or tender), and that is why different cuts of meats have different tastes and textures.
According to the United States’ Code of Federal Regulations (CFR; 9 CFR 301.2), meat is defined as:
The part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats which is skeletal or which is found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus, with or without the accompanying and overlying fat, and the portions of bone…, skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the muscle tissue…
(i) Meat does not include the muscle found in the lips, snout, or ears.
(ii) Meat may not include significant portions of bone… or any amount of brain… [or other large nervous tissue]
Okay… are you ready for the translation? Basically, when we say “meat,” we mean the parts of the animal’s muscle that we would eat, and some of the parts that we might throw away. Sinew, nerve, and blood vessels sounds kind of gross right? You know that stringy/chewy part in just about every chicken drumstick that you don’t eat? That’s sinew, nerve, and blood vessels. That whole chicken that you roast, but then throw out the skin before you serve it? The fat you trim off the steak before you put it on the grill? Technically, in this definition, when it all comes together, it’s considered meat.
BUT – some muscles are not considered meat – like muscles in the lips. There are also restrictions on nervous tissue (like brain and spinal cord) that can not be included. (The brain and spinal cord are where the prions that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy live. BSE can be transmitted to people through eating these tissues.)
So what about “meat by-products”? Let’s check out the CFR (same section) again…
Any part capable of use as human food, other than meat, which has been derived from one or more cattle, sheep, swine, or goats.
Well, that’s not very helpful. But it does tell us that it has to be “capable of use as human food.” And we can’t digest feet and beaks, so that kicks those right out of this definition.
The USDA Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book has some examples of by-products.
Byproducts must be individually declared by species and specific name in the ingredients statement, e.g., Pork Liver, Beef Tripe, and Beef fat.
Now we’re getting somewhere! So we know that meat is muscle. And by-products are parts of the animal that are edible, but not muscle. Remember when we said that the whole chicken was considered meat? But when you buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts the skin that is removed is considered a by-product. The fat that is trimmed from the pork loin before you buy it? That’s a by-product once it’s removed. Beef kidneys? Pork liver? Apparently some people like them. They’re not muscles, which means they’re not meat, but they’re edible, which makes them a by-product.
(For those who are wondering, tripe is the wall of the first two compartments of a ruminant’s stomach. Technically it’s a muscle, but it’s not in the list of the types of muscle that are considered meat.)
Have I lost you? Is this as clear as mud? Before I wrap up, let me get back to what sparked this post in the first place – that lady’s pet food claims. Once I had all this (sort of) figured out, I looked at the labels on some of the pet food samples she gave me.
Beef meal and beef fat. It turns out her “no by-products” pet foods actually do contain by-products.
Here’s the ingredient list from a package of hot dogs I have in my freezer.
Heading back to that same CFR (9 CFR 319.180), if the hot dogs contain by products, it must state on the label “with by-products” or “with variety meats.” This package does not, so “beef” here does refer to meat, not beef by-products.”
Man, what a headache! Okay, I know you’ve got them. What are your questions? Let’s tackle this!