One Cow, Hundreds of Uses
by Steve Woodward
As published in Portland, Oregon's 'Oregonian'
The mad cow scare may have prompted some consumers
to give up T-bone steak.
But there's no escaping the humble cow.
Gel capsules often are made from bovine gelatin. Bars
of soap probably come from processed cow tallow, which
is solid fat. Asphalt roads may contain bovine fatty
acids. Cars and trucks may ply those roads on rubber
tires made with cow oils.
Even wars can depend on cows. The explosive nitroglycerine
is manufactured from glycerine, which is extracted from
Cattle byproducts, simply put, are one of the glues that
hold together the industrialized world.
The discovery of a Washington Holstein with mad cow disease
turned the spotlight on the world of beef cattle, brains,
spinal cords and meat. The discovery also pointed to a
largely unseen world in which cattle parts turn into chicken
feed, mayonnaise and sex hormones -- and the potential that
byproducts from an infected cow might transmit bovine
spongiform encephalopathy to humans. Federal authorities
insist that is not a significant risk.
The diseased Washington cow had enormous reach, it turns out.
The 1,200-pound Holstein was cut, ground and added to 20,000
pounds of potentially infected meat in eight states, while
its nonmeat parts might have made their way into as much
as 1.5 million pounds of animal byproducts processed by Baker
Commodities, one of the nation's largest renderers.
That multiplier effect illustrates the cow's pervasiveness
in modern life -- and the high stakes of tracking mad cow
disease. Cattle byproducts go into everything from photographic
film to matchstick heads, says Bob Dickson, manager of the
Clark Meat Center at Oregon State University.
Glue made from cow's blood is widely used to make plywood.
The cow's nasal septum is processed into chondroitin sulfate,
an alternative medical treatment for arthritis.
Extracted protein from horns and hooves goes into foam for
The root gland of the tongue yields pregastric lipase, which
is used in cheese production as a curdling agent.
Tissue from the small intestines becomes catgut for racket
strings or surgical sutures.
And, of course, cowhide becomes leather shoes or sporting
goods. According to "Scientific Farm Animal Production," a
1998 textbook, one cowhide can yield about 144 baseballs,
or 20 footballs, or 18 soccer balls, or 12 basketballs.
British inventory of uses The most extensive inventory of
the uses of cow parts was completed in 2000 by the British
government, which held an inquiry into mad cow disease and
its human counterpart, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease,
in the United Kingdom.
That inventory documented that cow heads, meat, organs,
blood, hide, feet and fluids made their way into a variety
of human food, pet food, animal feed, pharmaceuticals,
cosmetics and industrial uses.
"Indeed, it has been said, and not altogether facetiously,
that the only industry in which some part of the cow is
not used is concrete production," the inquiry reported.
Even that is no longer true. France and Switzerland now
allow incinerated meat and bonemeal to be added to cement,
according to the London Sunday Telegraph.
"Until the latter half of the 20th century, the only major
uses for beef byproducts were leather and soap and candles,"
wrote author Verlyn Klinkenborg in the August 2001 issue of
Discover magazine. "But given an extraordinary spike in beef
consumption after World War II, as well as a parallel explosion
in industrial diversity, cows were suddenly fractionated
right down to the molecular level."
Though most byproducts go into animal feed, there is perhaps
no more miraculous use of a cow than in pharmaceuticals.
Many health products Heparin, an anticoagulant used to thin
blood, comes from a cow's lungs and intestines.
Epinephrine from the adrenal gland can treat hay fever, asthma
or other allergies, or stimulate the heart in the event of
Catalase, a liver enzyme, goes into contact lens care
Are these products safe from mad cow disease, scientifically
known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)?
For example, cholesterol, which is used to make male sex
hormone, comes from the cow's spinal cord, a tissue at high
risk for containing prions, the rogue protein that causes
mad cow disease.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the rigorous
preapproval process for new drugs assures the public that
prions don't make their way into medicines.
"There are ways to assure that bovine-derived products are
indeed products that come from BSE-free areas," said Murray
Lumpkin, principal associate commissioner of the FDA. "That's
what we've been doing for years."
Vaccines, he noted, are grown in fetal calf serum, not
central nervous system tissue.
But the preapproval process doesn't cover dietary supplements,
which are regulated as food, not drugs.
So supplements such as Brain 360, which are 360-milligram
tablets of raw cow brain concentrate made by Illinois-based
Atrium, face less stringent regulations.
Limits on supplements Banning potentially dangerous dietary
supplements isn't easy under FDA food regulations. The FDA's
recently announced ban on ephedra, for example, took place
only after the herbal supplement was linked to more than
"On something like bovine brain, the law says they have to
prove beyond a reasonable doubt that people have died as a
result," said Jean Halloran, a food safety expert with the
Lumpkin said foreign-made supplements are governed by import
laws, which restrict the importation of supplements made
from ruminants such as cows. But U.S.-made supplements face
no such restrictions.
"We're going to have to look at companies sourcing
domestically," he said, adding the agency will act against
sellers of food "to the extent it's not fit for human
Cattle byproducts also find other ways into the human food
supply, largely through the use of gelatin, which is created
by treating bones with acid. According to the 2000 British
government report, 60 percent of gelatin is used in food
preparation. The rest is used to coat tablets, bind
chemicals to photographic film and other nonfood uses.
Take a simple example of pie a la mode. The pie crust probably
is made with gelatin. The dollop of ice cream probably contains
gelatin for a binder. In addition, the sugar for the pie
filling may have been bleached with cow bone.
Other gelatin-based foods include jelly beans, marshmallows
and, naturally, instant gelatin.
Halloran said gelatin is safer than muscle meats, which
government and industry officials say are safe to eat because
they don't contain central nervous system tissue. Still, she
doesn't recommend eating any product, including gelatin, that
comes from an animal with mad cow disease.
"It falls under saying that no part of an infected animal
should be eaten," she said.
Plenty to render, recycle Only about half of a beef cow ends
up in the meat case, according to the National Renderers
Association. The castoffs from beef production -- 35 million
cattle slaughtered annually -- would quickly overflow the
nation's landfills if they weren't rendered and recycled.
So the humble cow continues to yield fertilizer from dried
blood, buttons from hooves, neat's-foot oil from shin bones
and toothpaste from fats. Even the lowly gallstone is exported
to China, where it is thought to have mystical values,
according to "The Meat We Eat" (Interstate Publishers,
1994, 1,193 pages).
"We're sometimes referred to as the original recyclers," said
Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association. "We
take a lot of material that would otherwise have no value and
convert it into products that do have value."
Steve Woodward: 503-294-5134; stevewoodward@n...