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Cow Parts

Mad cow disease could wreak havoc in the US because nearly everything we taste has cow in it

By Andrea Modica and Verlyn Klinkenborg
Aug 1, 2001 12:00 AMJul 11, 2023 6:10 PM


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A cow is elementary. Milk and butter and cheese from cows fill the dairy shelves in supermarkets, and the meat section is stacked with cuts of cow. The fast-food restaurants of this world are archipelagoes of ground cow. And, lately, much of the anxiety people feel about life, and especially about agriculture, is compounded of cow too.  Especially burning cows, and cows in heaps waiting to be burned, and cows being tipped into mass graves. Several million cows have been killed in Great Britain and other European countries during the past 15 years to prevent the spread of two diseases. One is foot-and-mouth disease, which broke out this past February on English farms in Cumbria and Devon, leading to a prophylactic mass slaughter of cows and sheep throughout Britain and France. The other, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, appeared near Ashford, England, in November 1986 and subsequently devastated the British beef and dairy industries. Cows have been the victims of the pathogens that cause these diseases— a virus in the case of foot-and-mouth, an abnormal protein called a prion in the case of BSE— but they have also been victims of human fears. These days, the poor beasts seem more pathological than pastoral.  Both diseases are insidious, but in different ways. Foot-and-mouth is explosively contagious, although it rarely affects humans and isn't usually fatal to adult livestock. BSE isn't contagious at all, but it always kills the animals that get it as well as humans too— a rare occurrence— in the form of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Trying to stop foot-and-mouth disease is like trying to put out a wildfire in a dry, windy season. Trying to stop BSE is like trying to bring down a network of spies in a prolonged cold war. The global reaction to these diseases has been to lock up the borders. International trade in live cattle and many bovine products has come to a near halt.  The continued slaughter in Europe has also led to a growing awareness of the problem of disposing of all that dead livestock. Renderers have worked overtime, and still the bodies, or what has become of them, pile up because there is no longer any fit use for them. The forced stockpiling of cow debris until it can be properly disposed of makes it obvious how completely the animals had once disappeared after reaching the slaughterhouse. But the apparently enormous scale of these forced culls— hecatomb upon hecatomb, it seems— is an optical illusion, caused mainly because cow pyres are news, and because the flesh of those animals is worse than useless.

Here is the measure of that optical illusion. In the United States in 1992— a normal year in this country, even as the BSE epidemic approached its peak in Britain— 30,860,000 cattle and 1,353,000 calves were sent to slaughter as a matter of ordinary business, their meat bound for burger chains and restaurants and supermarket meat counters. And this is where the numbers get interesting. On average, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 70 percent of a cow or calf is used for meat, but that percentage is high. Cattle buyers say the number is closer to 63 percent. The rendering industry estimates 60 percent. Studies conducted for the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food estimate 53 percent. What remains is inedible, and there is a lot of what remains, called offal. In the United States, what remains adds up by weight every year to nearly 9.5 million whole cows. To put it another way, every year in this country we must dispose of more than 11 billion pounds of inedible cow. Where does it all go?The answer is everywhere. Imagine that somehow you were obliged to reconstruct a Holstein or an Angus from all its commercially disseminated parts, no matter how small, reclaiming them from all of their uses, no matter how diverse, until you succeeded in reintegrating and revivifying an animal that might, as in a film running backward, walk rump-first out of the slaughterhouse, back up the ramp to the stock truck, and back to the feedlot or the dairy barn. You might begin by gathering all the cuts of meat that come from a cow, but that would give you only a composite, rather like the diagram of the principal steaks and roasts you often find in cookbooks. There is the leather, of course, the hide. But that would still leave you with an extraordinarily incomplete beast.  To reconstruct the complete cow, you would need to gather countless products from an astonishing array of industries. Some are still close to agriculture— processed animal feed and pet food as well as garden supplies such as blood and bonemeal. But other products have no apparent connection with farming, such as jet engine lubricants and brake fluid from bovine fatty acids, which are derived from tallow, which is itself produced from fat and bone.  The number of uses for beef by-products was once largely a matter of curiosity, of interest mainly to the manufacturers and to renderers. But in Great Britain, the appearance of BSE in the mid-1980s created a critical need for an inventory of beef by-products and their uses to identify which specific cow parts should be banned for use as human food and in animal feeds and fertilizers. The process was slowed by administrative wrangling, so 10 years passed from the time BSE was discovered and the audit was completed. But early in the investigation, scientists identified the cow parts that might carry the risk of contaminating farmers, slaughterhouse workers, employees at rendering plants, butchers, and the public. The most infectious organs— where BSE prions cluster— are the brain and spinal cord, followed, on a less infectious level, by the pineal, pituitary, and adrenal glands, spleen, tonsils, placenta, lymph nodes, ileum, part of the colon, dura mater, and cerebrospinal fluid. Less infectious still are the distal colon, nasal mucosa, sciatic nerve, bone marrow, liver, lung, pancreas, and thymus gland.

At first glance, these seem like lists of parts that could have very little use. But heparin, a frequently prescribed anticoagulant drug, is made from the lungs and bovine mucosa. The adrenal gland is used in making steroid drugs. The pancreas and the thymus gland are better known to diners as sweetbreads, and the pancreas itself is used to make insulin. Cosmetics and pharmaceuticals are made from the placenta. The dura mater is used as an implant in human brain surgery. The list of uses for just these parts, which together add up to only a small fraction of a cow's total live weight, goes on and on.  Before BSE surfaced, no one had ever accurately assessed just how many uses there are for a dead cow. There had been some guesses. According to the authors of the British inquiry, "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." But if the concrete is loaded onto a truck with rubber tires and driven down a paved road, or if the production company's annual report is printed on glossy paper, or if the company office uses plywood in its construction, then cow parts are involved. The paper is probably coated with a gelatinous chemical ultimately derived from tallow. The tires and the pavement are manufactured, in part, with bovine fatty acids, and the plywood is bound together with adhesive made partly of cow blood.  The very ingenuity of industry in making use of every last scrap of a cow is both a marvel and a potential source of anxiety. BSE emerged as a result of what originally looked like an ingenious use of beef by-products: feeding processed ground cow to ruminants, which are herbivores, not carnivores. And BSE suddenly meant that every industry using potentially infectious bovine by-products— a list broadly interpreted to include almost all proteinaceous materials— had to ensure that it was using by-products from unaffected countries. Various federal regulatory agencies issued a flurry of bulletins and advisory letters in the early 1990s in an effort to prevent the spread of contamination.

In 1992, for instance, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, an office of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, sent a letter to all manufacturers of dietary supplements asking them to "investigate the source of your neural and glandular tissues or tissue extracts of bovine or ovine species to determine if they are being produced in known BSE countries." Similar letters went out to the manufacturers of "drugs, biological drugs, medical devices, and biological device products," to the manufacturers of veterinary drugs and animal feeds, and to the makers and importers of cosmetics. Some products, such as vaccines, which are prepared in solutions that may contain "amino acids, glycerol, detergents, gelatin, enzymes, and blood" from cows, face strict regulation. But others, such as the enormous range of dietary supplements on drugstore and supermarket shelves, are less stringently controlled. The range of products needing an audit trail of their own— a clear record of the sources of their bovine material— seems almost countless. Even the capsules that contain popular dietary supplements happen to be made from bovine gelatin.  The ubiquity of cow by-products in the modern world is a direct consequence of the ubiquity of bovines themselves. In a way, it's the chicken-and-egg— or rather the cow-and-gelatin-capsule— problem. The enormous scale of the cattle industry creates a colossal amount of by-products. But the international market in proteins, fats, and oils also helps increase the scale of cattle raising. As the FDA bluntly put it when describing how vaccines are made, "Cow components are often used simply because cows are very large animals, and thus much material is available." Without cows as a source of proteins and fats and fatty acids, further sources would have to be found. Whether those sources would leave us better or worse off, ecologically and economically, is hard to judge.  Intellectually grasping the ubiquity of bovine by-products is also a matter of coming to grips with geographic ubiquity. The single most important result of the extensive British BSE inquiry was ending the practice of feeding cow parts to other animals. But meat and blood and bonemeal have been plowed into the ground as fertilizer everywhere and fed to livestock and pets and zoo animals all over the world. These cow products are also used as feed in fish farms, a potentially critical link between terrestrial proteins and the aquatic environment. Much of the global dissemination of bovine materials— in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, for example— is basically inert. Much of the rest of the by-products are in carefully regulated products such as pharmaceuticals.

But the world of bovine by-products is truly the world as a whole. In Shandong province, China, an oleochemical firm using cow parts creates a wide variety of fatty acids, amines, and quaternary ammonium salts, which are used as asphalt emulsifiers, antistatic agents, wetting agents, corrosion inhibitors, and fabric softeners. The firm also makes glycerin, which has uncountable applications, including, as the firm's Web site delicately puts it, the "war industry." In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, one company makes bovine trypsin, which is used for tissue culturing, as well as soluble collagen from fetal calfskin, used also in medicine and cosmetics. The company makes dried bile powder, which turns up "in soap and shampoo production, bacteriology, and printing houses."  The global penetration of cow parts is only likely to increase. As Lester Brown notes in State of the World 2001, the "innate hunger for animal protein, which manifests itself in every society when incomes begin to rise, has lifted the world demand for meat each year for 40 consecutive years." Brown calls this "one of the most predictable trends in the global economy," a trend whose inevitable by-product is by-products.  In short, cow is almost everywhere, in almost everything, in some form or another— but only recently. Until the latter half of the 20th century, the only major uses for beef by-products were leather and soap and candles. 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. Indeed, it's possible to argue that without the post-World War II explosion in industrial diversity, the size of the cattle population in this country could never have grown as large as it has. When people talk about industrial farming, they usually refer to the often deplorable conditions in which livestock is raised these days, usually confined in close quarters, often indoors. But the capacity to turn a cow into fabric softener is a kind of industrial farming as well, a kind we all participate in, whether we know it or not, whether we choose it or not. Where's the beef? Every last scrap of cow gets used somewhere B L O O D Cell culture laboratories Bovine serum albumin provides a wide variety of macromolecular proteins, low-molecular-weight nutrients, carrier proteins for water-insoluble components, and other compounds necessary for in vitro growth of cells, such as hormones and attachment factors. Serum adds buffering capacity to the medium and binds or neutralizes toxic components in the growth milieu. Home and industrial uses Plywood adhesives, fertilizer, foam fire extinguisher, chemical fixer for dyes T A L L O W S (fat derived from meat, bone, hooves, and horns) Edible tallow Used in shortening for baked goods and in combination with vegetable oils for frying foods. Also used in chewing gum Inedible fats and oils Various industrial tallows: Top White Tallow, All-Beef Packer Tallow, Extra Fancy Tallow, Fancy Tallow, Bleachable Fancy Tallow, Prime Tallow,Special Tallow, No. 2 Tallow, A Tallow, Choice White Grease, Yellow Grease F A T T Y A C I D S (derived from tallows) General uses Plastics, tires, candles, crayons, cosmetics, lubricants, soaps, fabric softeners, asphalt emulsifiers, synthetic rubber, linoleum (metallic stearate), PVC (calcium stearate), jet engine lubricants, carrier for pesticides and herbicides, wetting agents, dispersing agents, defoamers, solubilizers, viscosity modifiers Oleic acid -> pelargonic acid -> synthetic motor oil Oleic acid -> fed into gel cultures to produce antibiotics Azelaic acid -> high-performance coatings for planes and cars, food packaging, fishing line, acne medication, furniture Stearic acid-> aluminum tristearate -> cosmetic gels, pharmaceutical additives, grease additives, toner adjuvants, antifoam agents, explosive additives, waterproofing agents Fatty acid amides Lubricants in industrial processes Fatty acid amines Rubber, textiles, ore floatation, corrosion inhibitors,metalworking lubricants Fatty acid esters Emulsifiers, coating agents, textile sizers, lubricants, plasticizers, defoaming agents, lithium-based greases, textile lubricants, rolling and cutting oils, metal-machining lubricants Fatty alcohols Sodium alkyl sulfates, ultimately made into detergents G L Y C E R I N (derived from tallows) Glycerin derivatives A wide range of pharmaceuticals including cough syrups and lozenges, tranquilizers, eyewashes, contraceptive jellies and creams, ear drops, poison ivy solutions, solvent for digitalis and intramuscular injection, sclerosing solutions for treatment of varicose veins and hemorrhoids, suppositories, gel capsules Glycerol Solvent, sweetener, dynamite, cosmetics, liquid soaps, candy, liqueurs, inks, lubricants, antifreeze mixtures, culture nutrients for antibiotics Glycerin mist Aftershave preparations, shaving cream, toilet soap, toothpaste, sunscreens and sunblocks, dental floss, bath salts, bubble baths, body lotions, cleansing creams, moisturizing creams, external analgesics and counterirritants, shampoos, hair coloring preparations (bleaches, dyes, rinses, tints), hair dressings (brilliantines, creams, pomades), hair mousse, hair and scalp conditioners, hairspray, topical antibiotic preparations, hemorrhoidal preparations, pharmaceuticals for veterinary use, liquid household hard-surface cleaners, laundry aids (ironing and dry-cleaning spotting solutions), agricultural chemicals, automobile body polish and cleaners  C O L L A G E N (derived from connective tissues and beef skins) Hemostats, vascular sealants, tissue sealants, orthopedic implant coatings, vascular implant coatings, artificial skin, bone graft substitutes, corneal shields, injectable collagen for plastic surgery, injectable collagen for incontinence treatment, meat casings, food additives, artificial dura maters, dental implants, wound dressings, antiadhesion barriers, platelet analyzer reagents, research reagents, antibiotic wound dressing, lacrimal plugs G E L A T I N (derived from collagen) Food uses Powdered gelatin, leaf gelatin, gelatin hydrolysate, instant gelatin, jellies, confectionery (jelly beans, jelly babies, gums, pastilles), aerated confectionery (marshmallows, meringues, nougats, fruit chews), caramels, sugarcoated almonds, desserts and dairy products (Bavarian creams, mousses, piecrusts, margarines, dietetic products, yogurts, ice creams and sorbets), clarification of wines (fining agent), decorations (garnishes, galantines, foie gras, eggs in jelly), gel reinforcement for cooked meats to improve slicing, gels for the liquor exuded from hams during cooking, gels to preserve pâtés, dietetic products (dietary breads, biscuits, powdered soups) Cosmetics Protective creams, beauty masks, lotions, shampoo basesHealth-pharmaceutical productsSoft capsules, hard-shell two-piece capsules, hemostatic sponges, biological adhesives, blood serum, binder in pills and suppositories  Industrial uses Binder for flammable substances in matches, binder to improve "crispness" of banknotes, coating for microparticles of self-copying papers,glues for paper and cardboard cartons, bookbinding glue, electrolyticsurface treatment of metals Photographic uses Emulsion gelatin, dispersion gelatin, protective-layer gelatin, backing gelatin, baryta gelatin, modified gelatin O R G A N S A N D G L A N D S Lungs: heparin (blood thinner), pet food Heart: pericardium patches Trachea: chondroitin sulfate (arthritis treatment) Tendons: elastin, peptone Gall: cleaning agent for leather, paints and dyes Intestines: glycosaminoglycans (for cartilage and joint treatment), sutures, musical strings, racquet strings Liver: catalase, used in contact-lens care products Pancreas: insulin, chromotrypsin, glucagons Placenta: glycosaminoglycans, alkaline phosphatases, fetal calf serum Testicles: hyaluronidase (cartilage and joint treatment) Umbilical cord: hyaluronic acid Uterus: glycosaminoglycans Spinal cord: pharmaceuticals, laboratory reagents, source of neural lipids and cholesterol  Bile: bile acids used to make industrial detergents, bilirubin to measure liver function Nasal septum: chondroitin sulfate Nasal mucosa: heparin Bone: charcoal ash (for refining products such as sugar), ceramics, cleaning and polishing compounds, bone and dental implants

For information about and statistics on the BSE epidemic in Great Britain go to www.maff.gov.uk/animalh/bse. For details on the British BSE Inquiry, see www.bse.org.uk, where you'll also find a list of the many uses for cow parts.  For a primer on BSE and to find out what the United States is doing about it, go to www.fda.gov/cber/bse/bse.htm.

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