Beyond Nose to Tail: Wearable Food Waste

Civil Eats post by Haven Bourque

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April 28 2014

Beyond Nose to Tail: Wearable Food Waste

All photos by Brittany Powell.

When I think about shining moments in the good food movement, I think about Nose to Tail eating. As a former vegetarian who, given sustainably raised meat’s availability, has evolved into a proud omnivore, I’m relieved that ethical eating today includes a strong focus on using every bit and scrap of an animal that gave its life to nourish us. These days, tattoo-festooned butchery acolytes and lushly bearded DIY-types crow loudly about using every part of the animal in the latest culinary incarnation, be it charcuterie or one-pot-stew. Despite such admirable commitment, it gets my goat that many parts of food producing animals are still wasted.

It’s true that food waste conversations have taken on new depth and real urgency recently. Just last week an FAO report, highlighted by Beth Hoffman in, cited $700 billion worth of natural resources, including water, cleared forests, and greenhouse gas costs, wasted in food not eaten, along with incalculable waste due to factors ranging from loss of wetlands to improper storage that has no neatly wrapped numbers. As I sat down to write this post, I caught a Civil Eats tweet that linked to a sweetly convincing You-Tube video in which earnest Americans apologized for wasting food and pledged to stop the madness.

Books and research abound on the topic of food waste. Jonathan Bloom, author of the now classic American Wasteland, is as towering a figure in my food-issue aware community as Oprah is in mainstream America. Dana Gunders, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, is on top of breaking food waste news and writes passionately about waste reduction for a wide audience.

That wasting animals raised for food – otherwise known as meat – is the most egregious of food waste sins is lost on no one. It is easy to agree that a steak lover who would order a 40-oz sirloin, take home 20 ounces only to throw it out in the landfill is a horrible disregard of nature’s laws and basic decency.

But waste from animals we eat has an unexplored side. So many animal parts are useable, yet one certain type of waste never quite seems to come up in conversation.

Here my perspective turns personal. I grew up in a family of artists. Instead of paint and canvas, metal or wood, we used cow bones. My parents, putting their fine art degrees to strange use filled our rattling Ford van with shinbones from industrial-scale slaughterhouses, local butchers, or found bones from abandoned cattle ranches, brought them home to my sister and me for cleaning and prepping, then carved them into wearable art. If you ate a McDonald’s burger or a Western Sizzlin’ steak from 1970 to 2001, the bones from your dinner might have arrived up in our workshop, then would be draped on a Vogue Magazine model’s sleek neck.

When my family looked at a cow tibia, we did not see waste. We saw beauty and utility. Enchanted with each bone’s unique shape, we would spend hours in the workshop carving along the line of its natural curves, then sandpapering endlessly until each bone became fine enough for jewelry. Offended by profligate American culture, its affinity for cheap burgers and plastic bric-a-brac, we hoped that when people wore the bones, they would think of the cycle from pasture to plate to closet.

When we moved to the rural South to start our sustainable living and art-focused intentional community, our deer-hunting, backyard pig farming neighbors would bounce down the rutted dirt road, animal carcasses slung over the side of their pickups, cementing an unlikely alliance between ecology-minded bearded beatnik artists and Bible-thumping gun-rack-polishing rednecks. Partly, they came to see what was akin to an alien spacecraft populated by nine-headed Hydra that landed in their community, but they also were truly moved to see their hand-harvested animals well used by people who cared to do so.

We were by no means innovators. Traditional cultures from Native American to New England whaling placed great value on animal parts, viewing a bone, a tooth or a hide not as a castoff but as a precious resource, reflecting a deep understanding of an animal’s value in human society. Contemporary artists who work with discards – from NYC trash cubes to sculptures made of dust and glue – also make a significant statement about our throw-away culture.

Animal waste from slaughterhouses is processed at rendering facilities. The leftover parts, including viscera, blood, hooves, hides, feathers and bones, are heated, dried and and ground up, most often into bone meal for fertilizer and, until BSE scared us sensible in the 1980s, unfortunately into livestock feed. Necessary to keep disease from spreading, as explained in this unusually perceptive article, rendering plants are nowhere on the radar of Americans although they processed almost 8 billion pounds of animal waste in 1991. But rendering from industrial meat production puts entirely useable animal parts out of sight, out of mind, and out of reach for people who might want a closer connection with the animal on their plates.   

Although I don’t have an answer for the 8 billion pounds of animal-part waste caused annually by Americans’ meat and dairy over-consumption, I wish that the food movement, as it matures, would at the very least investigate reducing waste by using all parts of food producing animals. Certainly this would be a reasonable balance to our current interest in, for example, sea vegetable foraging. As a start, 18Reasons in San Francisco is hosting me and two meat producers who are working to reclaim unused parts of animals. Claire Herminjard of Mindful Meats and Joe Pozzi of Pozzi Ranch are brave to take the waste discussion to this level. Claire, Joe and I will explore traditions, barriers and tackle questions from ethical eaters willing to look beyond the basics.

Finally, here’s a modest proposal: if you’re a butcher, or a chef with a meat-centric menu, or even a proud omnivore, consider going beyond nose-to-tail by wearing or using the bones and hides of an animal that you consumed. These too are precious resources, and illustrate the transformation that ethical eaters can bring about.