Where’s the Beef? One Vet’s Take On Meat By-Products in Pet Foods

The truth behind so-called meat “by-products” in pet foods isn’t a “nice” one. But then, neither is the truth behind sausages and we eat those, too, right? (Well…some of us do, anyway.)

Indeed, the entire concept of animal consumption-not to mention animal slaughter -isn’t very pleasant when you think about it, so much so that an increasing population of humans worldwide is unwilling to eat, wear, or do anything else to animals that mirror the level of respect we give to humans. (That probably explains why no vegan I know would require their carnivorous pets to eat like they do.)

But I’m not here to talk about the touchy politics of veganism. What I’m more concerned with here is the anti-by-product backlash and whether it’s justified or not.

Strictly speaking, a by-product is a secondary product derived from a specific industrial process. By definition, a by-product is not the primary thing that’s produced. Hence, the term by-product in the context of pet foods refers to anything that’s not the meat itself. And, so we’re all on the same page here, remember that meat = muscle (which isn’t so pleasant to think about either).

According to one of the world’s largest-scale pet food manufacturers’ websites, “[b]y-products… are simply parts of the animal that remain after meat is removed. They may include lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys…” (Note: there are a number of other items this manufacturer refrains from mentioning that also count as by-products.)

This publicly stated definition of by-products is almost universal among pet food manufacturers, so I’ve chosen not to name this company. There’s no reason to single out any one manufacturer, not when even the fanciest of the “all-natural” brands uses similar deviations from complete transparency.

In fact, it seems the more a brand relies on its ingredients’ credentials, the more it’s likely to euphemize, obfuscate, or otherwise bend the truth when it comes to the non-meat animal products it includes in its diets. For example, one super-premium brand (which, incidentally, is currently being sued by a competitor for false advertising and fraudulent labeling on a separate issue) offers misleading information on its labels with respect to by-products.

Though it proudly claims to include “no chicken (or poultry) by-products meals” in its diets, this proclamation doesn’t preclude the use of poultry by-products in other non-meal forms. It also skirts the issue of by-products somewhat disingenuously by listing “deboned lamb” or “deboned venison” (among other) as ingredients on its labels. Any unsuspecting pet owner perusing labels in hopes of eschewing by-products might not know that “bone-free” can mean anything but bone, by-products included.

If you follow the politics of pet foods (and I know many of you do), you won’t be surprised by this revelation. Indeed, you’ll be hip to the many tactics some pet food companies employ when selling their wares to the public. But even if you don’t, you’ll probably harbor some mixed feelings about this loaded term. And who wouldn’t?
That’s because by-products have historically included anything from the fairly inoffensive “lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys” that the above pet food manufacturer’s website speaks of to the less palatable parts including teats, tongues, feet, blood, bone, beaks, pelt, and even (horrors!) heads, hooves, feathers, fetuses, and entrails.

But here’s the thing: None of these ingredients are inherently bad. I mean, what do you think wild animals eat? Where do you think all those chicken hearts go? Indeed, when we humans shun the distasteful bits, we’re not condemning them to life as fish food and algae blooms. We’re freeing up those parts to be used for feeding our pets, too.

And with good reason. Why should we waste all those animal parts and pieces just because we Americans tend to harbor resentment against guts? In fact, I’m not averse to feeding my pets by-products. As I’ve confessed here before, I’m given to feeding my pets frozen “gizzard-sickles” as a fun summertime snack!

Meanwhile, lots of people (and their pets) all over the world eat items we might deem “offbeat” and we’d never condemn them for it. So why be all cagey about the animal parts in that bag or can just because it’s not muscle? Why so much fuss?

Truly, that’s my only beef with the by-product concept. It’s a term that’s too arbitrarily and unnecessarily mysterious for my taste, full of sound and fury but typically signifying nothing more than “whatever animal part seems too gross to include on a pet food label.”

I felt so strongly about a manufacturer’s need to keep by-products undefined that I used to hold a fairly contrarian point of view on the subject. I believe I have a right to know what I’m feeding my loved ones-whether they’re human or not-and I thought that should extend to by-products, too. Why hide ingredients under this “mystery meat” category when so many responsible pet owners are perfectly happy to offer their pets by-products in a hundred other forms?
Yet over time I’ve come to believe by-products aren’t so bad, after all. Though I wish the industry had coined another, less mystifying term, it’s a necessary one I now think pet owners need to make peace with.

That’s because the ambiguity inherent to this humble hyphenated word is, sadly, unavoidable. How else can manufacturers designate a catch-all category for the miscellaneous animal bits that may or may not come their way on any given day?

The class of ingredients we’ve condemned as meat “by-products” isn’t just a stand-in for “low quality” protein as many pet owners believe. Rather, it’s designed to simplify labels and reduce the costs associated with maintaining a steady supply of one particular part or piece. The term is defined as such for the flexibility in labeling we require to keep pet food affordable to most of us.
After all, would you pay a dollar a pound premium for knowing your by-products include kidneys and kidneys alone? If so, there’s undoubtedly a pet food out there for you.

Though by-products are undeniably produced in ways many pet owners would consider unpleasant, I’d argue that’s true of any process that yields animal protein for consumption by animals or humans. I admit, it’s a hard point to end on if you’re trying to make the case for by-products. But then, if you consider the lowly sausage I disparaged earlier you’ll recognize the truth of the matter:

As long as you’re willing to feed animal products to your pets (as you invariably must if you keep dogs and cats), you should be willing to recognize that something has to happen to the foodstuff of animal origin we humans are unwilling to eat. Our refuse can be used to nourish them…which is how dogs and cats became domesticated in the first place, right? Gross as they may be according to human standards, by-products are far from “mystery meat”; they’re an affordable way to feed the animals we share our lives with.