Veal is a meat that, in the past, has earned itself a bit of a bad reputation. Unlike beef, which comes from adult cattle, veal comes from, generally speaking, male dairy calves. In terms of taste, it is often compared to beef, but with a milder and more delicate flavour, as well as a lighter colour. Since historical times, veal has been an element of the diets of many countries around the world, playing an especially important role in both French and Italian cuisine.
Fundamentally, veal is a by-product of the dairy industry. In order for female cows to produce milk, they need to give birth to calves. The females that they give birth to are raised to be dairy cows, but the same cannot be done with the males, as they do not produce milk. They also can’t be raised for beef, as the meat from dairy calves that mature into adults is inferior to that of cows raised specifically for beef. It is also too expensive to leave them to just live out their lives on a farm, as although this may seem harsh, farms are businesses and exist to make money. Therefore, the only way to avoid killing male dairy calves immediately after birth is to raise them for veal.
The main reason that buying and eating veal turned into quite a controversial idea was mostly due to animal welfare issues. After the second World War, farmers started to move their veal production indoors, in order to save time and space. They used veal crates, which would be the permanent home for the calves until slaughter. These crates were small and the calves would be unable to move. Farmers were also receiving government subsidies for items such as dried skimmed milk, which they would then feed to the veal calves, which resulted in the milk-coloured meat that was so prized back then.
The UK finally introduced animal welfare laws for veal calves in 1990 and, in 2007, there was a complete ban across Europe on the use of veal crates, meaning that calves are now raised in more humane conditions. They are kept in individual pens where they can move and interact with other calves until they are eight weeks old, and have a comfortable straw bed as required by law. After this, they are raised in groups of up to 80 calves, usually in an indoor barn or shed. They are slaughtered at around 6 months of age, similar to lambs and pigs.
As with other meat you buy, there is also the option of choosing free-range, or higher welfare, veal. These calves are allowed out to pasture in the summer months, and, on a small but growing number of farms, the calves are able to live outdoors with their mothers until it is time for slaughter.
Other than the issue of how the calves lived, there was also the issue of what they ate, as grain-fed veal ended up a darker colour than the traditionally-fed veal. Calves are no longer fed dried skimmed milk, but now have a diet of just milk with barley straw, which is essential in allowing their guts to properly develop. This results in a pale veal that comes from an animal that has been treated humanely.
So, with the animal welfare issue under control, and with male calves being an inevitable by-product of the dairy industry, why exactly are we not eating more veal?
Many celebrity chefs have taken it upon themselves to help educate the public on these new standards for raising veal calves. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched a Good Veal campaign, letting the public know that if more humanely raised British veal was eaten, it would stop these calves from being shipped off to other parts of Europe, where the animal welfare standards are not as controlled as here in Britain.
Soon after his campaign launched, Gordon Ramsay aired an episode of ‘The F Word’ about British veal, resulting in sales of veal at Waitrose jumping 45%. Other supermarkets, such as Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, have banned importing white veal, and are launching their own brands of British veal.
If you are looking to buy veal from the supermarket and can’t work out which is the higher welfare variety, look for ‘rosé’ veal. This meat is pink coloured and means that the animals have not been restricted to a low iron diet. If veal is something you have never yet tried, now is the time to do so. As the dairy industry grows, so will the number of calves. Eating more veal in the UK will enable farmers to keep more of their veal stock on their farms and raise them humanely according to UK law, keeping them from being exported to other countries.