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 any- one bother to avoid it?
Many vegans 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, many (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 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 use 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 beside 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 Others 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. Many people share the belief that all beings, human and non-human, are capable of feeling emotions and sensing 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.