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Vealing good?

Vealing good?

by Ella Timney 31 August 2014

We take a look at why veal – once one of the most vilified animal products the world has seen – has become one of the most ethical meats you can buy in Britain.

The use of crates in veal production was, and is still in some parts of the world, a hideous method of farming. Photographs leaked by animal rights organisations in the late 1980s turned the veal-buying public’s stomach against the meat, and campaigns about the cruelty of veal production were so successful that crate-raising veal was banned in the UK in 1990.

Almost twenty-five years later, veal still has a bad name, despite the fact that British high-welfare veal (as it is now known) could well be one of the most ‘ethical’ meats you can buy. The problem is that engaging with veal production makes us face hard truths about where our food comes from. The bitter fact is, every year tens of thousands of calves are born to keep dairy cows producing milk. Unfortunately, whereas hens will lay eggs whether or not there is any promise of a chick, to produce milk, cows need to have calves.

Something has to be done with bull calves – obviously they will never produce milk, and due to them being bred from milk cows, these calves will not yield enough meat to ‘make it’ as beef cows. The result of this excess is that every year, thousands of calves are killed twenty-four to fourty-eight hours after birth. Thousands more are exported, often in terrible conditions, to reach a veal market that has much looser regulations than our own.

And our veal standards are very high indeed – we banned crating in 1990, with the rest of Europe only bringing in a ban in 2006, and all veal produced in Britain must adhere to high welfare standards, where calves are given deep straw bedding and provided with a diet with plenty of roughage that allows them to develop unhindered. RSPCA Freedom Foods-labelled veal ensures that calves are raised to exceed these exacting standards, and the blood of calves is tested before slaughter to ensure that they have had enough iron in their diet.

Many people feel that insisting on buying British will ensure some mark of quality when it comes to meat production – just look at the recent scandal about contamination of chicken. Farming methods and practices still vary wildly, whether or not they are British. The truth is that British rose veal is likely to be raised to far higher standards than other kinds of meat, thanks in part to our national squeamishness about it.

And if the age of calves is a cause for concern, bear in mind that veal calves are slaughtered between six and twelve months of age. If this seems young, bear in mind that pigs are slaughtered between four and twelve months, and lambs are slaughtered in their first year too. If you like tucking into farmed squab pigeon, it may surprise you to find out that birds are slaughtered at around one month old, before they can fly – this both makes them easy to catch, and ensures they don’t overwork those breast muscles, keeping the meat tender.

So how does one go about sourcing high-welfare veal? The first step is, always buy British. Chef Graham Campbell recommends making the most out of your local butchers, who will have in-depth knowledge about where the meat comes from:

'The main thing is speak to your local butcher, say I’m interested in getting some veal, see what they can get. They can advise you on where to get it from, because it was hard to come by, it was frowned upon. And always ask for rose veal, nice whitey pink, a bit of marbling.'

Once again, it is down to the consumer to make the choice. No one is forcing anyone to care, but buying high welfare veal helps to redress the balance, to make something useful out of the waste caused by our demand for dairy. It also tastes delicious, so next time you're thinking about what to have for Sunday lunch, why not give veal a try.

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