Keep Your Consumer Dollars from Supporting the Meat Industry
By Hillary Morris and Maribeth Abrams-McHenry -- Vegetarian Voice, Winter 1998
Hillary Morris is an animal rights activist who has been closely involved in the vegan movement for several years.
Maribeth Abrams-McHenry is the Managing Editor of Vegetarian Voice magazine.
Scanning labels is a ritual for conscientious consumers. It's not unlike a yearly physical exam where we're looking for things we hope not to find. Foods and personal care products may include unwanted additives, allergens, or animal ingredients. What many people may be unaware of, however, is the vast number of animal ingredients hidden in everyday products by being labeled with barely-decipherable chemical names.
To further complicate the matter, some products labeled "no animal ingredients" may contain animal products, as no federal guidelines exist to monitor this claim. Some manufacturers persist in the misinformed belief that ingredients such as honey, silk, whey, casein, bone and gelatin are not derived from animals, and label their products as animal-free, even if they contain such items. Although some companies have traditionally been diligent about correctly labeling their products as to whether they contain animal ingredients, this is not the case with some others.
It is virtually impossible to avoid all animal-derived ingredients. From glycerol in brake fluid to tallow fatty alcohol in paint, animal products are everywhere. However, a growing number of people are trying, to the best of their ability, to avoid as many products as possible that contain animal ingredients. Most of them are already aware of the origins of whey, casein, honey and silk. But how can we learn how to decipher ambiguous ingredients such as arachidonic acid, oleolic acid, propolis, castoreum and cochineal, all of which are animal-derived?
Almost everybody likes to talk about food, so if you want to learn about products that are free of animal ingredients, then just ask someone who's been following a vegan diet for some time. This is a good place to start because you are likely to get a lengthy list of food items, personal care items, and maybe even information on price and availability. However, limiting yourself to someone else's food likes could get boring, so the next step is to obtain a reference guide of consumer ingredients and their origins.
If the idea of cross referencing product ingredients during a so-called "quick" trip to the grocery store seems worse than going hungry, then consider the fact that this shopping process gets easier through practice, just like everything else in the life.
If you are looking at a product's ingredient list and find words that you don't understand, it may take a minute or two to find out what they mean and where they come from by using a reference guide. (Jiv Daya Digest published a reference guide last year in July-September issue.) Chances are, the next time you come across that ingredient, you will remember its origin. Likewise, once you start using the products that you have identified as being free of animal ingredients, you will remember them for future shopping occasions. Beware, however, that product manufacturers do sometimes make ingredient changes. It is wise to occasionally check the labels of even your tried-and-true favorites.
Many conscientious consumers say that once they become accustomed to reading labels, they are able to do quick scans for certain ingredients, rather than starting with the first ingredient on a list and working their way down. For example, many of us have learned through label-reading that many commercial breads contain whey or milk powder. Scanning for these items takes just seconds, compared with the minute that it might take to review an entire list. If the ingredient in question appears, then the product can be put back on the shelf. Scanning the entire label only becomes necessary if the scanned-for ingredient is not there. Another time-saver is choosing products with few ingredients. This has obvious health advantages, too, as short ingredient lists often mean less processing.
You may occasionally encounter products that contain questionable ingredients, such as biotin, which may or may not be derived from an animal. In such instances, contacting the manufacturer is the only way to determine the ingredient's source. Whenever you discover a product labeled "no animal ingredients" that does actually contain some animal product, consider contacting the manufacturer to inform that they are mislabeling the product, and explain that the ingredient (such as honey, casein, or milk) is derived from animals.
Does this mean that if "questionable" ingredients are listed on products labeled "no animal ingredients" that this always requires a call to the company? Not necessarily. If you contact the manufacturer to ask what they specifically mean by the statement "no animal ingredients" and find that their product guidelines are specific enough to ensure no animal ingredients are ever used, then it is probably safe to assume that all of their products labeled "animal-free" are, in fact, free of animal ingredients.
We believe that learning about animal ingredients, reading labels, and communicating with product manufacturers is a minor effort compared to the great reward of knowing that we are taking an important step towards living more compassionately. We can go beyond this though, by also educating our friends and family about this lifestyle choice. Who knows? This might open the door for our loved ones to incorporate compassionate consumerism into their own lives.
WHY AVOID HIDDEN ANIMAL INGREDIENTS?
Decades ago, going vegetarian was viewed by many as somewhat weird behavior. Today, as our society is finally starting to recognize the benefits of vegetarianism, proclaiming that one is giving up meat may actually be met with approval. But what if we start scrutinizing the labels of everyday products for hidden animal-derived ingredients? You might be asked, "Why worry about a minuscule amount of lipase? [an enzyme from the stomachs and tongue glands of calves, kids and lambs which is used in cheese-making and in digestive aids] It isn't going to kill you!"
Well yes, it's probably true that a tiny bit of animal enzyme won't cause bodily harm (no harm to the human's body, that is!). So why would anyone bother to avoid it?
We would probably answer that question with the same words they might use to explain why they do not eat meat: it is cruel to use animals for our consumption when we can easily get by without them. Given the facts about the animal production industry, even the (non-vegan) vegetarians are likely to want to start reducing their consumption of less obvious animal ingredients.
Surprisingly, some people who consider themselves vegetarian continue to consume products that contain remains of slaughtered animals, such as gelatin (made from ground-up skin and bones, found in Jell-O, supplement capsules, and photographic film) and rennet (made from the lining of calves' stomachs, used to coagulate hard cheese). Some of these people may be unaware that these hidden animal ingredients even exist. Others know about them but feel that they are just minor components of a product, and that their presence is therefore not important.
So, how important are hidden animal ingredients? To the meat industry, they are extremely important! Every ounce of marketable product -- from hooves to urine -- contributes to the profit margin of the industry as a whole. For example, elastin, a protein found in the neck ligaments and aortas of cows, is purchased by companies that manufacture skin-care products. Hyaluronic acid, a protein found in umbilical cords and in fluids around joints, is used as a cosmetic oil. According to the National Rendering Association, the sale of animal by-products grossed more than two billion dollars last year. Purchasing goods that contain animal ingredients supports the meat industry just as much as buying foods that contain meat, eggs, and milk. Plus, as consumers, each of our purchases is a vote of approval. As experience has proven, if enough of us are willing to purchase veggie burgers (for example), then companies will strive to meet this demand. Likewise, if we buy products free of animal ingredients (especially from companies that intentionally avoid them) we help to ensure their availability and profitability.
Many people who do not eat meat for ethical reasons do continue using animal by-products that are obtained while the animals are still alive. Dairy is a good example, as many vegetarians who consume it rationalize their behavior by pointing out that cows are not killed in order to provide humans with this particular by-product. These vegetarians may not realize that dairy cows spend their entire lives in a cycle of imposed pregnancies to maintain lactation, and that within 24 hours of birth, nearly all of their calves are taken away. Not only are they deprived of their mothers' milk, but the male calves born out of this process are also forced into the veal industry. Some of them are killed immediately for veal; others are chained by their necks for 16 weeks in tiny wooden crates prior to slaughter. Their mothers (the dairy cows) are killed for fast-food hamburgers and other cheap ground-meat products once their milk flow is no longer economically advantageous. Because of these and other production methods, many people believe that the dairy industry involves more cruelty than that of the meat business.
There are other animals besides dairy cows that are used for by-products while they are still alive. Musk oil, a secretion painfully obtained from musk deer, beavers, muskrats, civet cats and otter genitals is used in perfumes. Also, captive wild cats, caged in horrible conditions, are whipped around the genitals to produce this scent. On farms in North Dakota and Canada, female horses are impregnated and then confined from the fourth month through the end of their 11-month pregnancies so their urine can be gathered for Premarin, a brand of estrogen. After the mares give birth, they are reimpregnated and their foals are usually slaughtered for meat. When the bodies of animals raised for their by-products cease to be productive, they too are slaughtered.
Some vegetarians who purchase items containing animal by-products believe that it is okay to do so because animals are not specifically raised for their by-products. Their rationale is that using items such as pepsin and lard (both originate from pigs' stomachs) is not unethical, because the animals are going to die anyway for their flesh. But we believe that the ultimate destination of each part of an animals' body is irrelevant; what matters is that their lives are filled with suffering.
To illustrate this on a human level, consider the wigs manufactured during World War II made with hair cut from the heads of concentration camp prisoners. Although the people were not specifically imprisoned for the output of hair for wigs, their lives were filled with immeasurable suffering, they were eventually killed, and the camps profited by selling their hair. We believe that all beings, human and non-human, feel emotions and sense pain, and refuse to be part of a system that treats animals as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves who exist for their own reasons.
MAKING THE MOST OF CONSUMER ACTION
Don't be too surprised if you discover animal-derived ingredients in products labeled "no animal ingredients!" Before jumping to conclusions that manufacturer is trying to deceive you, consider the possibility that the company might not even realize that the ingredient in question came from an animal. Or, perhaps its origin is known, but the manufacturer made the unfortunate assumption that consumers won't even care about such an "innocuous" substance in what might be viewed as a minuscule amount.
Such an instance presents an excellent opportunity to educate. Compassionate consumerism includes explaining to manufacturers that you only purchase products that are free of animal ingredients. Companies do respond to consumer demand, but only after being made aware that a vegetarian/vegan market exists.
Communication with product manufacturers is likely to be much more fruitful if you follow the suggestions below:
• Be specific. When trying to find out if a product is free of animal ingredients, avoid asking whether or not the product or a particular ingredient is vegetarian or vegan, because the person you are speaking with may not understand the true definitions of these words. Much better is to use the term "animal-derived" in your dialogue, and to specify what this means. Explain that it includes milk and eggs or their derivatives, insects and their products, and all ingredients derived or extracted from animal flesh.
• Get it in writing. If you are told by a customer representative that a product is definitely vegan, then ask for it in writing. By doing so, you will be much more likely to get accurate information.