Animal Fats

Animal fats, comprising butter, lard, tallow, and fish oil, play a diminishing role in the supply and distribution of oils and fats but together they still provide around one-sixth of the total, and it may surprise some readers that in terms of production level tallow, lard, and butter occupy positions 5, 6, and 7 after the four leading vegetable oils of palm, soya, rape, and sunflower. Butter may be considered as a by-product of liquid milk production though it is one of the major reasons for producing milk. Lard and tallow are more truly by-products and production levels depend on the demand for meat (pork, lamb, and beef). Fish oils are by-products of the demand for fishmeal in the aquaculture industry. Small but increasing amounts of fish oil are used as a dietary supplement, usually in encapsulated form, and often after some concentration of the active components, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid.

The diminishing demand for land animal fats in general and for ruminant fats (butter and tallow) in particular is linked to the presence in these fats of high levels of saturated acids, trans acids, and cholesterol, and to low levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Despite this last observation animals reared on pasture rich in omega-3 acids as opposed to animals fed on omega-6-rich oil meals are for some communities the second best source of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids more commonly obtained by eating fish. This is important in Australia/New Zealand and in some parts of Europe. However, animal fats are not consumed by vegetarians and among meat eaters there is a growing concern for animal welfare during life and at slaughter.

Diseases in cows, particularly BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) during the 1990s led to a reform of rendering procedures and a stricter classification of the resulting tallow. Only the highest quality tallow is now defined as food grade and other uses must be found for the nonfood grades. Increasing quantities are used for biodiesel production (up to 1 million tonnes).

Table 1 contains information on the production of butterfat, lard, tallow, and fish oils over a four-year period. Fish oils are fairly constant at around one million tonnes a year and are produced mainly in South America (Peru and Chile), Europe (mainly from Denmark, Norway, and Iceland), and Japan. The three land animal fats continue to increase in production, even though they are a diminishing portion of the global supplies of oils and fats. The final column in the Table shows that in relation to production levels there is a significant trade in fish oils. Trade in the land animal fats is limited and is virtually nonexistent for lard, indicating that this material is almost wholly consumed in the country of origin. There is only a modest trade in butter (except from New Zealand) and a little more trade in tallow. For butter the major producers are India, EU-27 (particularly Germany and France), USA, and Pakistan. In the Indian subcontinent, butter is consumed as ghee – a milk product with very little water (below 0.2%), which keeps better under tropical conditions. The major producers of lard are China, EU-27, USA, Brazil, and Russia. Tallow is produced mainly in the USA, EU-27, China, Brazil, and Australia.


Table 1. Production and exports (million tonnes) of animal fats in the period 2005/06 to 2008/09. Figures are taken from Oil World Annual 2009.
 Annual production (million tonnes)Exports
  Butter 6.73 6.87 7.04 7.15 0.65-0.75
  Lard 7.65 7.63 7.73 7.78 0.11-0.14
  Tallow & grease 8.46 8.52 8.58 8.46 2.21-2.35
  Fish oil 1.00 1.04 1.06 1.02 0.67-0.76

  Total 23.84 24.06 24.41 24.41  

Updated: February, 2012