Question of the Day: Are We Overlooking a Meat Source?

From the inbox:

Gentlemen:

I am a big fan — one who especially appreciates your willingness to (perhaps enjoyment in?) exploring solutions that many would consider repugnant.  In that spirit, I would love to get your thoughts on a seemingly unconscionable idea that I recently became aware of.

Every year the U.S. euthanizes approximately 3 to 4 million companion animals (mostly dogs and cats).  To put it bluntly, what do you think about using these carcasses as a meat source? We expend enormous resources — land, money, and energy –  in producing animal feed and ultimately meat.  Given this expense, as well as the world’s need for protein sources, I’d love for you to weigh in on this rather repugnant idea.

Sincerely,

XXX

p.s.: Please do not use my name if you are to publish this in any way.  

Your thoughts? Here are mine:

1. Yes, repugnance is an issue, from both the demand and supply sides — i.e., I can’t imagine a lot of pet owners would like their departed pets to be turned into human food, nor do I think a lot of Americans are clamoring for dog or cat meat. FWIW, I would include myself in both categories.

2. If we pretend that No. 1 isn’t an issue, are there enough dogs and cats to make a real difference? The Humane Society estimates that 3 to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized by shelters each year (I assume that’s where XXX got his number). For the sake of argument, let’s now make a few assumptions. Let’s assume that this Humane Society estimate is somewhere close to reality, and let’s assume the same number of pets are privately euthanized. So we’ll call it 7 million dogs and cats total, with 3.5 million of each.

Let’s say the average dog weighs 30 pounds and the average cat weighs 10 pounds. So that’s 3.5 million (dogs) x 30 lbs. (105 million pounds) + 3.5 million (cats) x 10 pounds (35 million pounds) for a total of 140 million pounds of dog + cat carcass per year.

Meanwhile, here’s how much “standard” meat American companies produce in a year: 37.2 billion pounds of chicken; 26.4 billion pounds of beef; 22.5 billion pounds of pork, 5.8 billion pounds of turkey (yes, most of it the product of artificial insemination); and 313 million pounds of veal, lamb and mutton.

So, even without the repugnance issue, 140 million pounds of dog and cat meat doesn’t look like a very significant meat source, at least for American consumers. On the other hand, U.S. chicken companies make good money selling chicken feet to foreign consumers, mostly in China and Hong Kong.

So maybe XXX’s idea has some value for export companies, as long as they’re willing to start a movement to collect and process every deceased pet in America?

3. All that said, and acknowledging that I probably wouldn’t (knowingly) eat cat or dog if only because I’ve been raised to love them as pets, I see XXX’s point: as a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of how resource-intensive it is to raise meat for consumption but we also spend a lot of resources raising other animals just as pets. Does anyone have a problem with that?

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COMMENTS: 47


  1. Don in Fort Worth says:

    feed the cats and dogs to the hogs

    all good

    anymore cityboy questions ?

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  2. Afreet says:

    I think ultimately, we’ll get a lot more mileage out of insects. Insects are quite nutritious, and much less resource-intensive to produce than larger livestock. This TED talk gives a good overview treatment: http://www.ted.com/talks/marcel_dicke_why_not_eat_insects.html

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  3. Joe says:

    Can livestock be fed cat and or dog meat?

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    • Blaise Pascal says:

      Can they be fed it? Sure. Hogs will eat just about anything.

      Is it legal? Probably not. Concerns about prion diseases have basically made it difficult to use mammals as part of animal feeds. Since dogs and cats are carnivorous (cats more so than dogs), feeding them to food animals makes it feeding animals to animals (dogs and cats) to animals (pigs) to people, and that’s going to be a hard safety sell.

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  4. Blaise Pascal says:

    Most euthanized pets are euthanized because they are sick, and would be unsuitable for food for that reason. It is possible that shelter-euthanized animals might be healthy enough to eat, but that’s still a small number.

    There are other issues as well: the dressed weight of many mammals is much less than the carcass weight, so the 140 million pounds is an over-estimate, as well.

    If Americans were able to develop a taste for dog and cat meat, I’m sure that the dog and cat farms would produce well more than 140 million pounds of meat a year, even without taking euthanized pets.

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    • Tristan says:

      The ideas that the number of euthanized animals in the US is small (either in absolute or relative numbers) or that the reason most pets are euthanized are because of old age or sickness are both very common and very wrong.

      The last in depth review of the issue that I could find was Rowan and Patronek, published in Anthrozoos, puts the number of dogs in the US at about 50 million (which appears to be relatively stable), and the number of deaths at least 15% of that per year (which is actually higher than the 7 million estimate above for cats and dogs). Some conclusions we can draw from the full statistics in the article:

      * The number of dogs owned/alive (at least in the US) is relatively stable.

      * The majority of new puppies come from breeders, with most of the remainder from un-spayed/neutered pets. Pet stores are a relatively small number.

      * About 40% of the dogs born every year will die in a shelter, the vast majority of them because there isn’t enough available space.

      * The number one source of dogs in shelters is owner surrenders.

      * About 2.5x more dogs enter a shelter every year than are reclaimed by their owners or adopted.

      * About 3x more dogs are bought from breeders every year than are adopted from shelters.

      Basically, the most common cause of death of death for dogs born in the US is being adopted, and then surrendered to an over crowded shelter.

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  5. K says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  6. Sebastian says:

    I think it is more of a food safety issue. There is no way of knowing what these pets have eaten throughout their lives, whether the meat contains any contaminants that are deemed to be hazardous to your health. It is probably also not economically viable to test each animal if it is safe for human consumption.

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    • Rupert says:

      I’m pretty sure the chemicals used to euthanize the animal aren’t on the “safe to consume” list

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      • LW says:

        Whether they are gassed or given a needle of barbiturates, they would be unsafe to eat. Add to that the disease factor. End of discussion right there, but a good question

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  7. Howard Brazee says:

    Certainly we waste that meat. Pets are considered a kind of people – and we don’t eat people (wasting that meat).

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  8. Elizabeth Sherr says:

    Dogs and cats were food sources in Europe and throughout the word for longer than we as a country have been in existence but the regulations and safety issues were not there as well as modern day pollutants and diseases. I am intrigued about feeding them as we do livestock but not as using them as livestock.

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  9. Miss.Ayami says:

    I think sending healthy cats, dogs and pets to countries that don’t mind eating them is a good idea. We may not feel comfortable eating pet animals but many others do and if we take away the initial shock, why should we not consider additional meat sources? The world is over populated and many people are desperate for food. This idea reduces the burden of demand for resource-intensive livestock (beef) while still feeding plenty of peopl. Some people are introduced the idea of eating bugs in 1st world countries for this reason, cats and dogs are a step up.

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  10. Nil says:

    Getting economies of scale for butchering would be a big problem. Most chickens, cows, & pigs are breed to a certain standard and butchered once they hit a defined weight range. Cows & Pigs are a a little more flexible, but slaughterhouses for smaller animals like chickens need every animal to be within 10%-20% of the same size & weight to slaughter them in a cost effective manner. The vast range of dog sizes would make them very difficult to process at an industrial level.

    Also I doubt that house cats would taste very good. The muscle structures of felines make the meat very tough & stringy. It would take a lot of cooking effort to make it edible to a standard American palate.

    Anyway don’t many of our feral animals & roadkill get tossed into rendering plants anyway? We may not eat them as meat, but we likely eat a tiny amount as gelatin although most of it ends up as pet food.

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  11. Don Bixby says:

    We just need a lobbyist to work with the FDA to come up with an approved name that hides what it actually is, such as ‘domestic meat product’, similar to how ‘mechanically separated chicken’ is a euphemistic way of saying that they grind up all the non-meat parts of the chicken and smash it through a sieve to take out any large bone fragments. You could then at a minimum put the domestic meat product in hot dogs.

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  12. tmeier says:

    The regulatory impediments would be considerable to say the least. Do you know how onerous it is to maintain a facility to butcher animals commercially?

    It does bring up an interesting economic question. One of the reasons people work to get excess wealth is so they can ‘spend’ in the form of ‘waste’ by not doing things they find repulsive such as eating pets. You can call it waste but it’s no more waste than entertainment or paying extra to travel first class.

    For me it’s not so much loving pets as having a moral relationship with them. I love to look at the deer in my garden eating the fallen apples but I’d still eat them. With dogs particularly we have something like a moral relation.

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  13. Joe says:

    I think you’d be adding a sort of moral hazard by introducing the possibility of exporting meat from euthanized pets. Sure, on the one hand it might seem reasonable to help fund shelters by giving them an additional income stream, thus saving more pets in the long run; but on the other hand, it might encourage the shelters to euthanize some pets rather than try to save them. You might end up with some for-profit animal shelters…

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  14. Randy Hudson says:

    Horses used to be both butchered in the US and exported for butchering overseas. Neither happens at present, due to issue 1.

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  15. Bob says:

    Dog and cat meat simply hasn’t been commercialized to the point that billions of pounds would be produced. Let’s say export companies do get shelters to send them euthanized pets. A lot of perfectly good animals are killed because there’s simply not enough space in shelters. If export companies could buy euthanized animals, then there’s the possibility that shelters will have more money and more space, thereby reducing the number of animals they’re euthanizing and drying up a potential industry.

    However, if the pet meat export industry doesn’t dry up, let’s say it takes off overseas. Then what? The export companies will want to increase their supply to cope with demand, and you have another supply problem.

    In both cases, what happens? Do the export companies start to “farm” pet animals? Sure, we’ll have the stray animal population under control, but what about farming pet animals? Will there be USDA regulations on pet meat? Will it even be allowed?

    I think the fact that a good portion of Americans have developed a pet relationship with an animal at one point or another means this idea won’t take off any time soon.

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  16. Bill Harshaw says:

    Consider the case of horses. Last I knew we still prohibited the slaughter of horses in the country, though we may have eased off on restrictions on exporting them for slaughter elsewhere.

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  17. Daniel H. says:

    When I saw the title of this post, I half-expected the subtitle to be “To Serve Man.” Glad that’s not where it went.

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  18. Wayne Yuen says:

    Intresting idea. I’m a vegetarian for moral reasons. I don’t want to support factory farming because of the cruelty involved. But if w start sourcing pets as food, then I can believe that (call it pet meat) is cruelty free meat, than the normal meat at the grocer. So Pet meat might make a good moral alternative to the cow/pig/ and especially chicken that is available to most in the US.

    On the flip side, like some people noted, pets being euthanized might not make for the best meat, since they might already be ill. I would imagine euthanasia drugs would also make the animal not fit to eat. So for this to be a reality, we would have to butcher our pets with best practices to create meat fitting to eat, but best practices might not be something we would be willing to tolerate when we’re putting down our pets.

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  19. Mark says:

    A true shortage of food protein production would result in people eating cats and dogs (and even rats, mice and squirrels) regardless of what the regulations say. Thats what happens and has happened in war zones.

    If the objective were to lower the cost of food protein production, then there is still a lot of potential improvement out there that is more efficient and (possibly/possibly not) less controversial.
    1. Eliminate subsidies for biodiesel – it is produced from soybean, cottonseed and rapeseed crops. These are the best food crops for livestock.
    2. Implement genetic engineering of livestock animals to speed up gestation periods/ muscle development/ metabolism. The technology is already available, but there isn’t consumer acceptance.
    3. Identify and farm ‘vegan’ fish on an ‘oceanic’ scale.

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  20. Anon says:

    I don’t think that America really has a protein problem – heck, most Americans get more protein than they need. Countries with protein issues tend to already keep dogs and cats as pets that turn into food later. Many countries in Asia and in Africa eat dogs and cats and also keep them as pets. I can’t speak to Asian countries, but I know that in (at least parts) of Africa people don’t eat their own pets (usually, though I have known of a couple of specific cases where dogs became annoying and were served for super), but rather pets of neighbors or strays are used as food.

    I can’t imagine it being economically efficient to export meat from America to the less developed countries that already eat cats and dogs since there is usually no shortage there. Can any America company really compete with the price of a stray?

    (Also cats and dogs are usually euthanized because they are sick, so that does not sound like quality meat anyway.)

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  21. Rob says:

    I think Mr. Dubner jumped to figures without considering some of the critical upstream qualitative issues beyond repugnance (which I believe makes this a deal breaker).

    Before we go to sizing the market, there are a few key issues:

    1. Pet’s are euthanized due to health and age issues. I don’t believe any vet euthanizes a healthy *pet*.
    * For health issues, I’m not certain we’d allow animals with illnesses into the food supply.
    * From an age perspective, there is a reason ranchers don’t slaughter old animals. The quality of the meat is stringy and in
    2. Animals in shelters come from uncertain backgrounds and eat unknown foods. Animals on farms have known environments. If there was a recall, you can typically go to the originating ranch and determine the issue.

    I think this idea has zero possibility of implementation. It reminds me more of the shock tactics PETA uses to try to offend people into behavior change.

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  22. Eric M. Jones says:

    Soylent Green.

    …jus’ sayin’…

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  23. matt says:

    What nobody has mentioned is HOW these animals are killed. Meat for consumption is stunned and then bled. Pets are generally given a massive overdose of either a sedative or some other

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    • Brian says:

      I was thinking the same thing, it is not safe to eat the animal after it has been euthanized. You would have to use a standard slaughtering technique. Not that big of a deal, but worth mentioning for those who think putting Fido down then having him for dinner is a good way to teach your children the circle of life.

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  24. JL says:

    There has been an effective ban on slaughtering horses in this country since 2007. If we can’t legally sell horse meat, which is eaten all over Europe, what’s the chance for dogs and cats?

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  25. Philo Pharynx says:

    We seem to be making good progress on in-vitro meat. From what I read the meat can be used for ground meat products. We just need to adapt this to commercial use. This reduces the environmental impact and I can see it eventually reducing the costs for meat. Even if they never get beyond replacing ground meat, this would be a large improvement.

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  26. Mary says:

    It would not be a significant source of meat. That is correct. I realized that if you could only “eat what you kill”, then in the last 20 years, there was just my cat Felix ( 16 years old and down to 8 pounds) and our beloved dog Smut (14 years old and 65 lbs). The rest of my pets died on their own. Even if I ate my neighbor’s dead animals and all the pet road kill I saw, I would still be basically a vegetarian.

    Is that repugnant enough ?

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  27. Steve Arnold says:

    Another factor, a large proportion of the euthanised pets will be diseased and/or very old. So even if you get passed the repugnance then the diseased animals would likely be ruled not fit for human consumption and the old animals would be considered very poor quality meat.

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  28. pat idaho says:

    I could eat dog or cat as long as it was not my personal pet. The first lesson anyone learns growing up on a farm is, unequivocally, do not make a pet out of the animal you intend to butcher and eat, be it pig, cow, chicken or, yes, even a fish!

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  29. tioedong says:

    a lot of those euthanized are in poor health, so I wouldn’t recommend eating them, and I suspect you’d have to export them, so it probably wouldn’t be economically viable.

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  30. Jack says:

    I would hate to think about what this would be incentivizing. Theft of pets? Shortened wait times for city pound euthanasia? Reduced research and effort on extending the lives and health of pets?

    Repugnancy…not just the idea of eating pets but the idea of treating them as objects with a set (and low) monetary value.

    Of course, if you really want to get repugnant, why stop at pets? Why not include recently dead humans? I don’t know how many pounds there are but it would be interesting to do a calculation and see how much money we could save if we skipped the burial process. Never looked into it but there are probably some environmental effects of all that embalming fluid and such we could avoid, as well.

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  31. Mike says:

    Soylant Green is people!

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  32. Steve Hoffman says:

    Here’s an unintended consequence of turning pets into a meat source. Will criminals or amoral people then be more prone to steal your pets for food, once it becomes culturally acceptable to eat dog or cat?

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  33. anon says:

    Why stop there? Let’s recycle dead humans, long as they don’t have any diseases. As noted, the world is full of insects that are a pefectly fine source of protein. Let’s start eating them, too. Soylent Green? It’s possible!

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  34. Ray says:

    On a similar thread, I am a big fan of “grass-fed” meat given that I’m trying to live on the paleo-diet. Is there a reason there is no commercial market for wild game? Given the deer overpopulation problems, I would think that we could supplement the beef, chicken, and pork markets with wild game.

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    • Philo Pharynx says:

      It would be hard to have an efficient commercial market for something that is in erratic supply. How many hunters go out each day? How many of them actually get a deer? How many will choose to sell it instead of keeping the meat for themselves? So the supply is variable.

      The quality will also be variable. The deer will be in different health, different ages, have eaten different amounts of different feed. One hunter may get his deer near the road and immediately head out to the butcher. Another may get it near the end of the day deep in the woods and won’t be able to get the carcass to the butcher for a couple of days.

      With these variables, it’s hard to imagine a large market. If one were to start, it would soon deal with the overpopulation problem and then they’d have to start conservation or switch to domestic deer.

      And all of this is a shame, because I rather like venison, but I’m not a great hunter.

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  35. Chuck says:

    i would be pretty sad if my rescued greyhound had to be put down.

    that said, she does have some pretty meaty drumsticks…

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    • anonymous says:

      ;-( awww…

      Actually, I have pretty meaty drumsticks, myself! If a human-eating alien came here to hunt, he’d look at me and start tying a napkin around his neck!

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  36. billyg says:

    What about horse meat?

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  37. Julie Harley says:

    Some parts of the world are indulging in this practice but I think it is strange to eat your own pet after being so friendly with it. The thought of eating a cat or a dog didn’t even cross my mind because it seems weird. :)

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  38. Jake Gunst says:

    I’m surprised that these two issues weren’t raised:

    1) Dogs and Cats are carnivorous. Usually, we don’t eat carnivorous animals. I don’t know why, but I assume it has to do with meat quality and the physical composition of these animals (meat/muscle/etc). Cows aren’t runners, I imagine dogs and cats don’t have as much useable meat. I do know that pollutants tend to build up in animals towards the top of the food chain.

    2) If your concern is food supply, dogs and cats consume a lot of food. Many of my vegetarian friends defend their stance from a resources standpoint. It takes many meals-worth of vegetables in order to make one entree’s worth of chicken or beef. I don’t have the numbers, but I’m sure they would be very interesting.

    When it comes to efficiency and repugnance, I would say that the argument should be “let’s increase the food supply by killing shelter animals sooner and more often.” Let’s curb the demand for meat by controlling the amount of extra meat-eaters, instead of focusing on a relatively small supply of meat.

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  39. momosgarage says:

    It’s already happening for non-human grade meat. Look up “Rendering Plants”, there is this little thing called the internet and will provide many articles on the subject.

    This already exists for non-human grade meat by-product processing, it shouldn’t even be listed here as a topic for economic ponderings (yes, people have been making money on this concept for a very long time).

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