Today most people acknowledge that animals are killed for meat and leather too, but few realise that bones, hooves and horns land up as ingredients of many products. According to Global AgriSystem close to 21 lakh tonnes of cattle bones are annually generated from India’s livestock.

Just like meat and leather are considered two sides of the same coin, bones are the substance in-between because they fetch the butcher a good price too. Cattle bones (cows, bulls, buffaloes) are commonly used. Bones of camels and horses are also utilised. When the use of ivory was banned, most artisans promptly shifted to the use of camel and cattle bones.

Bones of cattle, taken from slaughter houses, are utilised in the making of handicrafts like carvings, in-lay work, show pieces, trinkets, etc. Ironically, these items are allowed to be exported even though beef export is banned.

In January 2017, the export of bone, horn and hooves and their products, ossein (collagen of bones), worked bone (excluding whale bone) worked horn, coral and other animal carving material and articles thereof, buttons and blanks, to the European Union was allowed subject to a ‘Shipment Clearance Certificate’ and a ‘Production Process Certificate’ which is actually a formality required for all Animal By-Products exported from India to the EU.

Green or fresh bones (those that are not brittle) derived from young, healthy, slaughtered animals, mainly cattle, are crushed and sold for processing as follows:

• Blood and tallow or animal fat is first removed from the bones and is sold as poultry/animal feed and to the soap & detergent industry

• Crushed bones are sold to the edible gelatine, pharmaceutical and photographic industries

• Raw or steamed bone meal is sold as organic fertilisers and animal feed

• Steamed horn & hooves meal are sold as organic fertilisers

• Meat & bone meal is sold as animal feed

• Bone ash is sold as poultry feed and to the ceramic industry for making bone china

• Bone grist is sold as raw material for bone charcoal production

The most commonly presumed use of bones is in sugar making which needs clarification: (a) it is no longer used for decolourising cane sugar in India; (b) modern sugar making technology has lessened the use of bone char (calcinated animal bones, also called natural carbon) but if manufacture of beet sugar processing is done in a continuous process bypassing the raw sugar stage then it need not involve the use of bone char for decolourisation.

Animal bones are burnt at high temperatures to obtain not only bone char, but also bone black, ivory black and animal charcoal used mainly for filtering water (removing fluoride), refining crude oil in the production of petroleum jelly (Vaseline) and as a black pigment (paint, printing ink, etc).

Fine china, bone china and ordinary china, all contain about 50% bone ash (burnt bones), whereas porcelain is made of kaolin (clay). Earthenware (clay, quartz and feldspar), stoneware and most ceramics are also free of animal substances expect when shellac-coated for shine. Ceramic material is inorganic and non-metallic – often crystalline oxide, nitride or carbide.

Usually “bone china” is printed at the back of the item, but if it isn’t, to ascertain whether the crockery contains bone ash or not, hold it up to the light, with your other hand touch the item from the back at the bottom of the cup or back of the plate and move your finger in  small circular motions. Bone china is translucent therefore if it is so, the movement of your finger will be visible.

For bone china animal bones are thoroughly cleaned and heated to about 1000 C to sterilise them. They are then ground fine with water. This bone ash is an essential ingredient of bone china: the phosphate of bone generates beta tricalcium phosphate and other compounds from bone create a calcium crystal called anorthite.

“Green” disposable tableware is increasingly used to serve food at weddings in Mumbai. It is made from plants like sugarcane, sorghum and wheat and spoons and forks from corn starch. Such an alternative to bone china as well as throw away plastic plates and spoons, has been invented by an entrepreneur from Hyderabad: Bakeys Foods’ edible cutlery is made by using sorghum, rice and wheat flour and some items have sugar, ginger or black pepper added. Another alternative making a comeback is earthenware, and not only as Diwali diyas, handis and sakoras used for rituals. Its making varies as per region, but basically the sedimentary soil used for making terracotta pots is a renewable resource and the process of making them is environmentally friendly since no chemicals are used and no pollution is caused. Terracotta cookware and tableware is an excellent alternative to bone china as long as it is well fired and of a good quality.

For example, teacups from Azamgargh of Uttar Pradesh have a shiny black colour because the terracotta is fired till it becomes fully baked and strong. Dry leaves are put into the furnace at the end resulting in soot. Mustard oil is then smeared and after another firing the black colour and shine gets fixed. Manipuri is famous for longpi pottery which is also black in colour but this is due to mixing black stone powder with the clay although the pots are made and fired in the same way as terracotta. The edges and handles of longpi pottery is typically decorated with cane weaving. Another area famous for earthenware is Gundiyali in Kutch. Using their bare hands the potters create perfectly shaped matkas and ghadas for water storage and some times paint beautiful intricate designs on the pots.

In 2017 with the aim of making the state plastic-free, the Kerala Suchitwa Mission launched a drive asking wedding and other event organisers to serve food on plantain leaves and drinking water in steel glasses in place of disposable plastic items. Many Iftar party organisers readily followed the protocol.

Bone ash is also used as a fertilizer for plants, or it could be treated with sulphuric acid to permeate the soil better.

Crushed slaughter house derived bones also land up as bone meal or organic fertiliser. There was a time when bone meal was used as a human dietary calcium supplement but it is no longer recommended because of toxic metal contamination. The mad cow disease fear stopped bone meal from being used as a human dietary calcium supplement.

Another derivative of animal bones and other body-parts is gelatine and still in use in India and exported too. It is almost synonymous with jelly, although crystals made of vegetable gums are available. In addition to being an ingredient of very many foods (E 441), gelatine is widely used by the pharmaceutical industry in the form of capsules. Manufacturers say they use buffalo bones but just by looking at them no one can ascertain whether the bones are those of buffalo or cow. To a lesser extent gelatine is utilised by the cosmetic, photographic, paper and glue industries. Whether edible or not, gelatine is of animal origin. Alternatives are agar-agar, carrageenan, pectin, konjac and cellulose.

It would not be out of place to include cartilages on this page because both bones and cartilages are supporting connective tissues. Cow cartilage is used in the treatment of arthritis, healing wounds, skin ailments and certain cancers however, the possibility of catching mad cow disease/bovine spongiform encephalitis/BSE through its use is of course high. Few know that vaccines like Rotavirus administered to children worldwide to immunise them against gastroenteritis, and Thrombin commonly used to prevent blood clots during surgeries is manufactured using bovine serum derived from foetuses of cows.

Page last updated on 22/08/17