I must confess — I’m icked out by the word “animal byproduct”. There, I said it.
That doesn’t mean I don’t understand what a byproduct is, nor does it mean I think byproducts shouldn’t find a home in animal or pet foods — these are safe, nutrient-dense feed ingredients — but in a world of buzzword-heavy branding and marketing, agriculture has a long way to go to meet consumers where they are.
Why all this talk of byproducts? A&W Canada has once again raised the ire of many in the agriculture industry by rolling out its latest marketing scheme, this time aimed at breakfast. The ads show a “just like homemade” breakfast, and state the eggs come from hens not fed any animal byproducts — their “egg guarantee”.
“But,” you say, “chickens are omnivorous! Why should this matter?”
It matters, not because of taste or nutrient quality of the resulting eggs, but because “animal byproducts” is the correct term and it’s icky. Full stop.
Regardless of what we know to be true — that laying hens are fed eggshell and feather meal to meet their nutritional demands, and that they’d feather-pick and eat eggshells on their own if left to their own devices — consumers have taken a keen interest in their food and the marketing has followed suit. One can only assume given the rise of organic, ‘all natural’ and Jamie Oliver-branding food lines, that the branding, feel-good messages are working.
In this case, I can’t say I entirely blame them. We (agriculture) need a new word for byproducts. The poultry nutritionist I spoke with as background for this column also used the term “co-products” when referring to meat and bone meal, feather meal or eggshell meal. It’s better, but we can probably even improve on it.
At the same time, consumers worth their salt should likely do some digging on what, exactly, animal byproducts are and why we use them. Those that do would discover that using co-products is not just a safe, regulated and efficient production practice, it’s better for the environment and safer for all of us — we humans only eat certain parts of the animals we slaughter. The parts that we don’t eat should be used or they end up requiring more energy to dispose of, and, if not disposed of correctly, could pose a health or environmental risk. It’s not a pretty picture, but if we’re to be responsible consumers, we should think about the entire life cycle, energy use and potential environmental impacts of all of what we consume, not just the egg cartons our breakfast is delivered in.
I have a last point, one that should seem obvious, but seems to have crept in as the “new normal” as more and more people are removed from livestock production. Animals are not humans. Yes, those animals in our care — livestock, working animals or companion animals — deserve to be treated well and have their needs met, but projecting our own standards onto them and what they eat isn’t just misguided, it’s potentially dangerous. For example, cats MUST eat animal protein, at least as part of their diet, as it’s the only way they get access to certain amino acids they can’t make themselves. What’s more, taking an omnivorousness animal and removing animal protein, in whatever form, from their diet can be done, yes, but it requires far more work on the ration planning side and adds cost.
Left to his own devices, what does your dog eat? Would you eat it? I’m going to guess no. In the same way, laying hens have very high nutritional needs of very specific amino acids and levels of calcium, found in those nasty-termed “animal byproducts.” Feeding them eggshells is just good practice, not icky at all.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about all of this, is that poultry byproduct meal is actually far too nutrient-dense and valuable to ever be fed back to poultry (it’s technically allowed, but it’s not common industry practice). Want to know where it goes?