Veal: Evolving from “Cruel Meat” to Ethical Choice

The veal market is undergoing a slow but unstoppable revolution. There is a move away from age-old clashing viewpoints, which saw an unquestioning consumer acceptance of outdated animal rearing practices in traditional veal consuming countries on the one hand, and the outright rejection of “cruel meat” in others. In line with rising animal welfare concerns, traditional veal eaters are starting to modify their expectations, while former rejecters are gradually getting used to the idea that the meat can be produced humanely, and also that choosing it represents a step towards sustainability.

Of crates and anaemia

Not all that long ago, from the standpoint of animal welfare watchers, eating veal was regarded just as abominable a culinary habit as the consumption of foie gras. However, unlike the latter, good-quality veal can indeed be produced without undue animal suffering. Great strides have been made in that direction over the last decade, and efforts are still ongoing.

A major milestone was achieved in 2007, when the EU finally outlawed the infamous veal crates, originally designed to restrict the animals’ movement in order to keep their muscles soft. In the US, although still legal, veal crates are used less and less, and the American Veal Association plans to phase them out by 2017.

Besides the controversial crates, the other major sticking point is the animals’ diet. In those European markets where veal has a long tradition of consumption, such as France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Austria, consumers are accustomed to veal being very tender and, above all, light (“white”) in colour. This characteristic pallor is achieved by feeding animals a nutritionally inadequate diet based primarily on milk. The calves end up suffering from anaemia, resulting in a high incidence of digestive disorders and infections, which necessitate the frequent administration of antibiotics.

Change is afoot

In the UK, which is definitely not a traditional veal consuming market, high-end retailers have taken on the task of promoting veal as a healthy and ethical choice. Second-ranking (by value sales) UK supermarket chain Waitrose (GBO John Lewis Partnership Plc), for example, which caters to a largely middle-class, well-educated consumer base prepared to pay a premium for high-quality, ethically-produced food, claims to offer a wider selection of fresh veal than any other UK supermarket. Its products include escalopes, ground, diced and rib of veal, topside, T-bone and osso bucco, essential for the preparation of the eponymous Italian dish, which exists in many regional variations.

Waitrose exclusively sells “pink” veal from calves reared at low population densities in well-ventilated barns, equipped with deep straw bedding and outdoor access. The animals also enjoy a varied diet, resulting in meat with a colour that is pretty close to that of standard beef, rather than the turkey-breast hues characteristic of “traditionally” reared veal.

On the continent, things are also changing. In Switzerland, for example, Migros and Coop, the country’s leading grocery retailers, only too aware of their customers’ changing attitudes, have strengthened their focus on animal welfare. One of the measures implemented is a cessation of the formerly industry wide practice of “Rotabzug” (= red deduction), which is essentially a financial penalty imposed on suppliers of veal that was considered too red in colour. Swiss grocery retailers’ policy revisions preceded legislative changes: since last autumn, Swiss law stipulates that veal calves must be fed a varied diet, rather than an exclusively milk-based one.

Within the EU, feeding regimes producing white veal still persist, albeit under strict veterinary supervision required by law. However, the long-term trajectory is clear: as consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the true price these animals pay in order to comply with orthodox preferences, an unrelenting shift is taking place, with healthy, pink veal gradually emerging as the new industry standard. Unless old feeding practices are outlawed, white veal is unlikely to disappear completely from butchers’ counters, but its role will be reduced to a marginalised “gourmet” choice for special occasions and high-end restaurants.

Veal: anti-waste, pro-nutrition

There is still much work left to be done on the consumer education front, and not just where changing consumer preferences in traditional veal markets are concerned, but also in conquering markets like the UK, where veal penetration remains very low.

For example, the bulk of consumers remain unaware of the fact that, in order for a dairy cow to produce milk, the animal has to give birth to several calves over the course of its productive life. Half of these calves will be male, and if these are not subsequently reared for meat or breeding purposes, their inevitable fate is to be killed at birth. This high wastage of animal life flies in the face of modern-day consumer sensibilities in terms of sustainability.

Another positive aspect, which should help to make veal more enticing to a thus far reluctant target group, is its nutritional merits. Veal is high in protein, low in fat, and, thanks to updated feeding practices, has a comparable iron and mineral content to standard beef. All in all, veal is a highly attractive choice for the modern-day consumer, whose focus is increasingly trained on health and ethics.