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The veal deal


We look at the hidden cost of dairy farming. Is it time we changed our minds about veal?


Eating veal is almost unheard of in the UK, and fewer than 1 in 100 households buy and eat it, according to the English Beef and Lamb Executive (Eblex). Production is falling, with just 1400 tonnes produced in 2006, less than half the figure for the previous year. Yet Compassion in World Farming, along with farmers who back the Good Veal Campaign and top chefs such as Bristol’s Barny Haughton, want to challenge popular misconceptions of veal production in the UK, and publicise the differences between British and European farming methods.


Barny has this to say: “Veal is to beef what lamb is to mutton; we must rid ourselves of the idea that it’s inhumane. It has its place in the food chain. But more importantly, we have to look at the consequences of milk production and what you do with bull calves.”


Although veal is popular in other European countries it’s an anti-social choice here in the UK: a result of the inhumane practices used to produce white, or milk-fed veal on the Continent. The calf is confined to a crate to restrict its movement and this, combined with a liquid diet low in iron and roughage, makes the meat tender and pale.


Crating has been illegal in the UK since 1990 and banned throughout Europe earlier this year, although slatted floors are still allowed, making it difficult for calves to stand up, and the space allowed per animal remains small. In contrast, British veal produced to the highest welfare standards has pink, not white, flesh and is tender and delicately flavoured.


Called ‘rosé veal’ it is now being marketed as the meat for conscientious carnivores. Anyone who eats dairy should consider the whole picture here. With no market for veal, dairy farmers still have to dispose of unwanted calves. Very few dairy farms raise beef cattle and so their choice is this: shoot any male calves born immediately, or condemn them to the ordeal of live export to Europe, where veal production thrives.


Thousands of calves leave the UK every year for EU veal farms, some of them enduring journeys that can take up to 20 hours. Pressure group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) have campaigned for an end to the trade, advocating humane alternatives to guarantee a better life for male dairy calves: replace the live export trade with a trade in meat carcasses; ensure male dairy calves reared in the UK are sold as high-welfare alternatives, such as extensively-reared beef and rosé veal, and switching to dual-purpose breeds of cattle which are suitable for both dairy and beef farming to ensure that male dairy calves are not a waste product.


CIWF say that they will continue to campaign until the farming industry and the government take on board these alternatives, as they represent the only sustainable and humane way forward for the UK dairy industry. They advise anyone wishing to buy veal to buy British and preferably organic veal, which encourages farmers to give calves access to the outdoors.


Ruth Kimber and her husband Paul started producing veal for the UK market after the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic made transporting animals impossible. Ruth, a dairy farmer from the village of Charlton Musgrove (about halfway between Frome and Yeovil) tells The Spark: “The welfare of calves going abroad has improved; they’re a big investment, so you look after them and make sure that they arrive in good condition, however the attitude towards animal welfare on the Continent is different, and the reality is that animals produced in the UK get a better deal.


“We mostly breed Angus cattle for beef, and Friesians for dairy. At the time we had two or three cows left to calve, but the loss of the export market during foot-and-mouth was a huge blow. I told my husband that I was going to try raising my own veal, and he told me I’d never sell it! We keep the calves in exactly the same way as we keep our other calves, with a diet of milk, cow cake and barley. The only difference is that as they approach eight weeks the other calves are weaned but we keep the veal calves on milk – and they’re very happy with that, they have a good life on the farm. They’re moved to larger pens with access to the outside and then taken to a local slaughterhouse at seven months. It’s environmentally sound: if you want milk you’re going to have bull calves born, and a lot of people just shoot them. They don’t have the facility to keep them: they’re of no use.”


Ruth now sells her rose veal at farmer’s markets around the region as well as in the family’s own farm shop. “I didn’t know how to joint the meat at first,” she says. “There was so little information available, but over the years we’ve polished up and now sell at farmer’s markets in Bath, Frome, Salisbury, Glastonbury, Shaftesbury and Wincanton.”

Written by Darryl Bullock
Published in The Spark issue 52 - spring 2008

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