What do cheese making, cardiac bypass and newborn infants all have in common? They may benefit from animal by products.
Surprising places you find animal products
Calf rennet is extracted from the lining of the fourth stomach of young, unweaned calves and is an important ingredient in most cheesemaking (goat kid and lamb rennet are also used - depending on the type of cheese being produced). Similarly, Heparin can come from pigs’ intestines and is a vital weapon to reduce the risk of clotting in long surgeries such as cardiac surgery or to treat that embolism caused by long flights. Premature infants who are born without enough surfactant in their lungs are said to have respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) which causes the alveoli (air sacs) to stick together, so surfactant derived from the lungs of recently slaughtered cows is processed and administered to RDS babies. These are all honourable uses of by products from animals slaughtered for food, but, what about the question of offal (animal by-products) as food?
Nose to tail commitment
At the recent Food on the Edge conference, a chef described his commitment to the animal from nose to tail – suggesting that no part of any animal slaughtered for food should be wasted. From both an ethical and resource perspective he was right, however, our view of offal varies considerably based on our religious and cultural values.
The origins of the word offal are interesting – it comes from several German dialects, along with Dutch, Afrikaans, Norwegian and Swedish. The German meaning is garbage or waste or, literally, off-fall – the bits that fall off during the butchering process. In reality, it refers to the internal organs and entrails of the animal. [As an interesting, and rather gross aside, in ancient times, mobs sometimes threw offal at condemned criminals].
Appreciated in different ways by different cultures
Offal is appreciated in different ways around the world. In China, duck-tongue soup is considered a delicacy; in Scotland, haggis (made of sheep’s heart, lungs, and liver, and cooked encased in a sheep’s stomach) has been a treat since first recorded in 1430; sausages were traditionally encased in animals’ intestines; sweetbreads (the thymus or pancreas of calves or lambs) are enjoyed around the world. But, the treatment of offal and our perception of it has changed in recent times and in a large part, this was due to the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE; ‘mad cow disease’).
The impact of mad cow disease
Nearly three decades ago (1986) an outbreak of BSE precipitated a global decline in offal consumption; in the UK alone sales of all beef products immediately decreased by 40% and, in an effort to reduce human exposure to the disease (believed to be spread through consumption of nervous tissue from infected animals), a number of offal-based food products were withdrawn from consumption.
Eating humble pie
Fast forward 30 years and offal still has a poor reputation in many Western countries; however, a growing chorus of commentators are calling for a rethink of what we do with so-called rubbish products (another aside, an archaic, word for offal is ‘umbles’ as in the expression ‘eat (h)umble pie’). Some attribute our disdain for offal as being due to snobbishness rather than health concerns, citing the rising affluence of the West leading to consumers wanting to distance themselves from the poorer cuts of meat. There is a bit of an irony here, as the offal components of an animal are in more limited supply than the more expensive cuts and, in some countries, such as France, offal is considered at the pinnacle of gastronomical fare.
The arguments for consuming offal include the preservation of traditions (specifically culinary practices) and reducing the environmental impact from raising an animal for slaughter – simply put, if all parts of the animal that can possibly be used for nutritional purposes are used, then the impact of production is less. In other words, if we are serious about sustainable production, we need to be serious about deriving all possible nutritional benefit from the animal: offal is an excellent source of protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
There are barriers to becoming more conscious offal consumers, specifically the availability of the product (a scan of most supermarkets will find an absence of tripe and trotters), and a loss of recipes and knowledge for preparation. To see a resurgence in the pickling of tongues in Anglophone countries will require acceptance of the responsibility of meat production by consumers, sharing of knowledge and know-how, availability of products/ingredients and probably a celebrity chef or two peddling actual (rather than figurative) tripe.