While waiting for a friend to join me for dinner at ITSU in Canary Wharf this week, I was leafing through some magazines. I came across a very interesting article by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on veal production in the UK, featured in the June edition of Country Living (unfortunately the full article is not available on-line). I didn’t buy the magazine so I don’t have the text to refer to – so please forgive me if I miss some of the detail.
The author explains the concept of crate-raised veal which involves calves being taken away from their mothers at an early age and tethered in stalls which are sometimes so small that the calf cannot turn around, lie down or groom itself. Here they are fed a milk formula instead of their mother’s milk and the solid food that they would normally later eat. The reason behind this is to ensure that the calves’ muscles do not develop and so that they remain almost or fully anaemic which will leave their the flesh tender and milky pale, the colour which is so prized by consumers. At about 16 weeks the calves are slaughtered and their flesh sold as veal. It is the methods described above which have given rise to a flood of anti-veal sentiment around the world. These methods are still in use in the United States, but have to a large extent been outlawed in the UK and the EU.
The author, and other sources, goes on to say that calves (and by extension, veal) are a by-product of the dairy industry (so in fact, if you don’t eat veal, you should also not be having any dairy products!). Milk cows need to calve regularly in order to continue producing milk. As a result, many more calves are born each year than are needed to replace ageing milk cows – and half the calves born are male calves which are no good at producing milk! The calves are essentially surplus to dairy production requirements – the only reason why they are raised at all is to produce veal. The author argues that, if the anti-veal lobby were to succeed, these calves would be of no use to the dairy farmers and they would in any event be taken from their mothers at birth and killed in much the same way as now. This would spare the calves their short, confined, miserable lives, but would be equally traumatic for the cows and of no benefit to the farmers.
The author then visits a UK farm where they are experimenting with the concept of raising so-called rosé veal. This means that calves are left with their mothers for a few weeks and are allowed to progress naturally from her milk to solid foods. Even after being taken away from their mothers, the calves are raised in groups in large open barns, as opposed to crates, and can move around relatively freely and feed on straw. In an ideal scenario, calves would also be allowed some time on natural pasture, outside the confines of the barn, but this would depend on the farm concerned. Calves would still be slaughtered at about 4 months, but would have led relatively normal (well, normal for a commercially-reared farm animal…) lives up to that point. The resulting flesh is not the milky white of crate-reared veal – hence the name rosé veal to denote the richer colour.
The argument is as follows: since dairy production is not about to stop, cows will continue to have calves that are of no use to farmers. If we manage to eliminate the demand for veal, these farmers would for economic reasons be forced to kill the calves shortly after birth. However, if we preserve a demand for veal in a slightly different form (rosé) and refuse only to buy crate-reared veal, we provide farmers with an incentive to raise the calves in a relatively humane way. The author concludes that, if a worldwide move to rosé veal production methods can be achieved, then eating veal should be no more cruel than eating any other meat (and a whole lot less cruel than eating, say, battery farm chickens).
I must confess to two things: 1. I have not eaten veal for probably 10 years or more – mostly because of cute pictures of calves with their velvety noses and big brown eyes – but do eat other meat and I know that this is completely, totally hypocritical. 2. I am aware that veal is absolutely delicious – the first time I ate a meal and consciously thought later that the food was spectacular was veal piccata eaten at a harbourside restaurant in Portofino on family trip in 1983. I was barely a teenager at the time and certainly no food critic – but for years afterwards I rated that veal as my favourite meal ever. So from my perspective I would love veal production to be more humane so that I can eat veal with as much (or as little!) guilt as eating beef. But that’s just me thinking with my stomach.
I guess what the article in fact highlights is that if you are going to eat meat, there is going to be a degree of cruelty involved. Full stop. Even if you raise your livestock as members of your family and give them all the natural pleasures an animal could possibly want, at some point you are going to kill and eat them – cruel by any standards. Once you have accepted that fact and decided to continue eating meat, the only responsible thing you can do is to focus on the provenance of your meat. Stop buying battery chickens simply because they are cheap. Don’t eat foie gras from farms where the geese are confined to crates. Buy free-range eggs. And always make sure that delicious veal piccata is made with rosé veal.