As you know, many of the shells that surround your supplements and pharmaceuticals are made of gelatin. And gelatin is an animal product, made from bones and waste materials from animal product manufacturing. More specifically, gelatin is obtained from the partial hydrolysis of collagen derived from the skin, connective tissue and bones of animals.
Many consumers who are aware that gelatin is derived mainly from cows are looking for an alternative, due to a concern stemming from the mad cow (BSE) scare. Some experts say those fears are overblown because gelatin processing destroys BSE infectivity. Other scientists aren’t too sure.
According to the Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America (not necessarily a non-biased source), during gelatin processing, raw materials are exposed to purification procedures. This includes prolonged exposure to either acid or alkaline conditions, or both — processes that are designed to provide a safe gelatin supply for consumption. Supposedly, the raw materials are also exposed to sterilization, filtration and demineralization, which have also been shown to significantly enhance the safety of gelatin.
There’s a difference, however, between enhancing safety and being safe. And there can be an even larger difference if some processing plants don't always follow the guidelines.
“Alkaline or acid processing in gelatin manufacturing may only reduce rather than eliminate BSE infectivity,” said scientific advisor Morrie Potter, one of the committee members reporting to the FDA in 2003. Potter said that brains and spinal cords from cattle originating in BSE countries could be included in the raw materials used to produce gelatin for human consumption because these manufacturers believe their processes are safe.
They may not be safe. That's why there has been a huge increase in manufacturers using "veggie caps" for their herbal products and vitamins. Not many pharmaceutical companies have gotten on the veggie cap bandwagon, although Pfizer owns a company which is one of the larger manufacturers of vegetarian capsules in the world (Capsugel).
Veggie caps cost more (seemingly for no reason -- they are considered an "upgrade" for a manufacturer). It may be wise to insist that your capsulized products come without gelatin. Even oils such as Omega 3's can be packed in new vegetable or seaweed derived capsules; sadly, most products in that category use the lower-priced, and possibly dangerous, gelatin capsules.