Do you enjoy lattes and cappuccinos? How about a wholesome fruit and yogurt
bowl every now and then? And cheese: Do you sprinkle Parmigiano on your pasta,
enjoy melted mozzarella on a pizza, or perfectly warmed and oozy triple-cream
Brie all by itself?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then you really ought to
reconsider eating veal if you’ve given it up (and make sure to read on if you
haven’t). Nope, that’s not a typo. Such a statement would seem to condemn me for
supporting one of the most heinous sectors of the food industry; but you see,
I’m not talking about the veal that’s available at your average grocery store.
The thing is there is nothing technically immoral or wrong about the notion of
raising and eating the meat from young cattle. The immorality only arises when
you combine greed with an utter disrespect for nature in an industrialized era
that produces and promotes cheap food. Now that’s a mouthful. Allow me to
examine the industry and offer some advice for the road ahead.
Veal is the meat from a calf, or young beef animal. In Canada, the law
defines veal as the meat from any bovine animal that has a maximum carcass
weight of four hundred pounds. Veal calves typically reach that weight at five
to sixth months. Some argue that this is too young an age at which to slaughter
an animal for meat; following this dictum, then, you should be avoiding most
meat other than beef and mutton. (The average age at slaughter for Cornish game
hens is three-and-a half weeks; for ducks, five weeks; chickens, five to nine
weeks; turkeys, sixteen weeks; pigs, twenty-two weeks; and lambs, twenty-four
weeks.) I see myself as a conscious omnivore and believe that raising animals
for meat can be accomplished in sustainable manners that efficiently utilize
energy. Veal is no exception.
||Regardless of the exact weight or age at time of slaughter, the key point here
is that there is no distinction between breeds of bovine used for veal. There
are hundreds of cow breeds; some have been bred for their meat characteristics –
Black Angus, Limousin, Hereford, Charolais,Wagyu, and the list goes on – while
others have been bred for their milk-producing capabilities, such as the
Holstein-Fresian (which make up well over 80 percent of dairy cattle), Guernsey,
Jersey, and a handful of others.
Of all the cow breeds, probably 99 percent of veal sold worldwide comes from the
dairy breeds, mainly the Holstein-Fresian. The Holstein is that unmistakable
black-and-white-patched, long-legged creature with a massive pink udder.
Some industry folk would call veal a byproduct of the dairy industry,
and there’s a very good reason for this: In order to keep producing
milk, dairy cows must take a break from milk producing every year and
have a new calf. As you can imagine, the number of calves born to dairy
cows is staggering – far more than is necessary to provide replacements
for retiring dairy cows given that the average Holstein is productive
for six years. The question naturally arises, what happens to all those
calves, especially all those male calves (which presumably make up half
of the calves born) that can’t produce milk?
Right now, they face three possible fates: some go to farms to be raised for
veal; some are sent to slaughterhouses when they’re a couple of weeks old and
marketed as “bob” veal; and others are slaughtered very soon after birth, with
the majority of these ending up in the hands of large, commercial pet-food
producers. Consumer demand for veal essentially dictates which fate the unneeded
calves will follow. Of the three possible fates, it would seem that raising them
as veal would be the most sustainable and humane option. Yet according to the USDA’s Economic Research
Service, veal consumption plummeted from 8.6 pounds per person annually in 1944
to 0.41 pounds in 2004. During the same period, the dairy industry has
dramatically grown, thereby producing even more calves. I blame this conundrum
on the stupidity of the veal industry as a whole, in its creation of one of the
most inhumane and utterly disgusting animal husbandry practices humankind has
The multi-billion-dollar global white-veal industry is based on producing
milky-coloured, tender meat. To accomplish this, calves have traditionally been
confined to crates and fed a low-iron liquid “milk replacement” diet. The crates
are about thirty inches wide and seventy-two inches long, therefore prohibiting
the calf from turning around; all they can do is stand up, lie down, and eat. By
promoting white-coloured meat, the industry has had the justification to feed
the animals an all-liquid milk-replacer diet that is deficient in iron and fibre
and composed primarily of cheap industrial bi-products. It follows that low iron
intake and total lack of exercise inhibit the calves’ ability to produce red
blood cells, resulting in reduced hemoglobin concentrations and, eventually,
anemia. But don’t worry: there’s always been just the right amount of
antibiotics in the mix to make sure all is A-okay.
Veal crates were prohibited in the U.K. in 1990, and were phased out of the E.U.
in 2007. Although lagging behind, the board of the American Veal Association
passed a resolution recommending that all veal producers in the U.S. convert to
group housing by 2017. In Ontario, supposedly no veal producers use crates and
instead use stalls, hutches or pens. (I’m still waiting for a call back from a
producer to get details.) Although veal crates cause the most suffering, the
standards for group pens don’t provide for significantly better living
conditions. I was horrified to find this statement on the Ontario Veal
Association website: “Exercise, either too much or not enough, has no effect on
the tenderness or quality of the meat produced.” To me, that’s an ignorant
statement that sums up the mentality of the conventional veal industry.
For the love of Mother Nature and all things holy in this world, avoid white
veal. It is indefensible.
After decades of trumpeting anemic, white-fleshed veal, I guarantee you that
the industry will completely switch gears in the next ten years and promote
darker-coloured veal referred to as rosť veal, red veal, or even grain-fed veal.
This new veal industry is a marketer’s dream come true. I can envision the
flashiness of red-veal labels plastered over plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays.
Calves for rosť veal are generally fed a more “normal” diet consisting of both
milk and cereal-based feed, without restriction of iron intake. The higher iron
content will naturally create meat that is darker in colour; it won’t be the
deep red of an older, full-grown beef, but red veal is definitively redder than
white veal. The move towards a higher-in-iron diet, coupled with the fact that
the use of crates for raising veal is on its way out around the world, will no
doubt be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the term “red veal” will
not automatically mean humanely raised.
There will be higher-welfare – dare I say, organic – methods of raising red veal
that will see calves reared in small groups in straw-bedded sheds with adequate
space allowance per calf and access to the outdoors when weather permits.
Conversely, there will also be lower welfare, intensive systems of raising red
veal that will feature group pens stuffed with eighty calves housed on extremely
uncomfortable wooden slat floors with no access to natural light or fresh air,
and with little roughage in their diet. So be forewarned – not all red veal is
The only veal we sell at The Healthy Butcher is pasture-raised. It is
marvellous meat, raised on – you guessed it – pasture and, of course, mother’s
milk. The photos accompanying this article showcase the veal and beef from one
of our favourite grass farmers – the Webers in Paisley, Ontario. David and
Ellen Weber and their five children are a lovely Mennonite family who use nature
to its fullest potential.
||On their farm, calving only happens in the spring
when it is naturally supposed to occur. (Cows would never give birth in
the fall without human intervention; they instinctively know that a baby
calf would not survive the harsh winter.) So during the summer and
autumn, the baby calves roam the pasture while occasionally suckling
their moms. Calves are butchered in the autumn or early winter. Take
notice, however, that the cows in the photos from the Weber farm are
all-black; that’s because they are the Black Angus breed. Remember I
mentioned that the vast majority of veal come from the black-and-white
spotted Holstein breed as a byproduct of the dairy industry? As
sustainable and humane as the Webers’ pasture-raised veal are, it does
not solve the problem of dealing with all the unneeded calves from the
The Webers and other farmers raising 100-percent-pasture-raised-veal
know that it would be impossible to raise Holsteins strictly on pasture.
are advantageous for dairy production because they convert the majority of
energy from food into milk, leaving very little for the development of muscle
and fat. Holsteins have, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of the River Cottage
T.V. and book series bluntly puts it, “a distinctly bony behind.” Furthermore,
without a grain ration, Holsteins simply won’t thrive.
I prefer to describe pasture-raised veal from beef breeds as “young beef,”
since the term more accurately captures the essence of what it is. But now we’re
back to square one: Although pasture-raised veal from suckler herds (that is,
from typical beef breeds) is a commendable meat product, it does not mend the
gap we have in the dairy industry.
If the goal of the organic dairy industry is to be fully sustainable, then it
is not acceptable for organic calves to suffer the same fate as non-organic. We
must find ways to be “calf neutral” and to humanely deal with redundant dairy
calves. Thankfully, there are a couple of options. The first option is to set
out clear and specific rules, meeting the highest welfare standards, for raising
organic veal from dairy breeds. Eastbrook Farm in the U.K. is one of the
pioneers of the industry, producing organic rosť veal. The veal are raised in a
loose housing system supplemented with free access to outdoor pastures during
the spring and summer months. The calves eat pasture, organic cereal-based feed,
and milk from a nurse cow. (The farm takes older cows retired from the dairy
herd to use as surrogate mothers for the calves. Brilliant!)
Another option is for dairy farmers to look beyond the milk-producing
capabilities of Holsteins and realize that more value can be gained from a cow
that produces a good amount of milk but also has value in its meat. This can be
accomplished by either mating the dairy cows with the bull of a prime
beef-producing variety, with the resulting offspring much more disposed towards
fattening for meat, or by selecting a robust dairy cow breed that has both good
milk and meat attributes.
Overall, finding a solution to utilizing redundant dairy calves would contribute
to a more holistic farming system and greater respect for animal welfare. It
would seem that the two options above are cutting edge, and to a certain extent
they are…to our generation. But really, isn’t either option really a move back
to old-fashioned methods of farming?
Why did we ever move away from holistic farming? A lot of it comes down to
dollars and cents. I spoke to farmers from both Organic Meadow and Harmony
Organic, the two largest organic dairy co-operatives in Ontario. Between these
two organic dairy producers, more than twenty-five hundred male calves are born
annually, without a solid ethical veal industry to deal with them. A common
theme ran through my conversations with these farmers: They all believe that
organic veal should exist and can exist, but they explain that if they were to
raise organic veal, there might not be anyone to buy it because it would
inherently be significantly more expensive to raise – and to buy – than
conventional, feedlot veal. As Linda Baumberger, a Harmony Organic farmer,
eloquently explains: “It boils down to the consumer. The first thing people
shave from their budget is food. Even among neighbouring farmers, people choose
to buy their meat from Walmart because it’s cheaper.”
Indeed, as a society we have moved food to the bottom of our priority list. In
1950, the average North American householders spent 30 percent of their income
on food; by 2004, that number had dropped to 12 percent and is now even lower.
But are we not fooling ourselves? Are we not paying for this cheap food in other
ways, like our own health and the Earth’s ecosystem?
Eating veal is an ancient culinary tradition, recorded in thousands of years of
literature, history and scripture. The cuisines of Italy, France, Germany,
Switzerland, Hungary and the Czech Republic would be naked without veal. We are
at the tipping point of a new veal industry that in the next ten years can
either repeat recent history and look like something out of a horror flick, or
repeat ancient history and look like nature. As Margaret Mead once said: “Never
doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”