Where Does Veal Come From?

In this explainer, we answer the question what is veal?

what is veal

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The word “veal” describes meat that comes from calves that are usually aged between 6 and 8 months old at slaughter, but sometimes far younger. Veal calves are typically the Holstein-Friesian breed and male. Since they cannot produce milk, they are sold by the dairy industry to be slaughtered and sold as meat. 

Veal is a popular cut of meat in Europe, the region which produces and consumes most of the veal produced in the world. In contrast, veal is rarely consumed in the U.K. and U.S., where veal-eating rates have continued to decline since the 1960s. Veal production has a reputation for being exceptionally cruel, an image that farmers in the U.K. and the U.S. have struggled to challenge. But even though there have been some reforms, many aspects of veal production result in animal suffering. 

What Animal Does Veal Come From?

Veal is made from the flesh of baby cows, also referred to as dairy calves, who have been slaughtered for human consumption. These cows are sometimes referred to as veal calves, named for the type of meat that they become when sold on the market.

Bob Veal

Bob veal is meat from calves killed at anything from a couple of hours to a month old, but who are typically under 2 weeks of age. As veal crates have been outlawed in several U.S. states and Europe, demand for “humane” bob veal slaughtered at younger ages has risen, because the undeveloped muscles of newborn calves make their meat more tender. Bob veal accounts for about 15 percent of the U.S. veal market.

Slink Veal

Slink veal is the youngest possible veal, harvested from stillborn or unborn calves. It is normally collected from cows that are pregnant when slaughtered. Slink veal is illegal to consume in the U.S. and Canada.

Rose Veal

Rose veal is a type of meat made from cows who were between 8 months and 12 months old when they were slaughtered, according to Compassion in World Farming U.K. Unlike other calves raised for veal, these are not restricted in their iron intake and are allowed to eat roughage. The term refers to the color of the meat produced when calves are raised this way, contrasting with the typically creamy white or light pink color of white veal

Is Veal Just Baby Cow?

In a broad sense, yes. Veal is made from the bodies of young cows. Cows who are slaughtered for veal have not yet reached puberty and are under 1 year old. Technically, for a cow to be slaughtered for veal, the cow should be a beef animal under 8 months old

Why Is Veal Cruel?   

Veal is considered cruel because of the conditions in which cows are raised and slaughtered to produce this type of meat. Better conditions for cows would not force them to adapt too much to unnatural circumstances, would not impair their health and would optimize their emotional well-being. 

Separated at Birth

Natural behaviors of cows include suckling milk from their mother for about a year and accompanying their mother for several more years. Veal calves will be separated from their mothers very shortly after birth, perhaps only getting one drink from their mother’s udder for important antibodies. Some bob veal is removed from the mother immediately after birth to be shot. The process of separating a calf and mother is a highly traumatic one for both individuals.

A large body of research has established that mothers and calves gain a strong emotional bond immediately after birth. A mother cow will cry out for days after separation, hoping to receive a response from her calf, which may have been transported to another part of the farm, or abroad, or already have been slaughtered. They will exhibit negative reactions to ambiguous stimuli after violent and traumatic events. Indications of stress, like showing more whites in their eyes, will be present after such separations. In short, the animals suffer greatly from the practice of separation, the first cruel step perpetrated in the manufacture of veal.

Abnormal Behaviors                        

Calves separated from their mothers and the herd will exhibit abnormal behaviors This is in part due to their being raised in isolation, without gaining any benefits from socializing and also because of the conditions they are kept in. Cows raised in isolation, typical on those farms which still use veal crates, will exhibit a large range of abnormal behaviors including bar biting, tongue rolling and excessive resting. These repetitive behaviors, called stereotypies, are indicators of mental anguish and poor welfare standards. The behaviors could be interpreted as a form of self-soothing and a way to adapt to a difficult environment. 

Abnormal Gut Development

Veal calves tend to be fed a milk substitute that contains insufficient amounts of nutrients, and particularly lacks iron. This leads to abnormal gut development in the animals, as this diet causes them to have chronic diarrhea. The lack of iron also causes the calves to suffer from anemia, which gives the animals their prized white flesh while making the calves lethargic, weak and unwell. The veal industry purposefully breeds these animals to suffer perpetual illness and malnourishment, a practice which can only be called “cruel.” 

Cruel Transport

Comprehensive scientific evidence shows that calves experience significant stress when handled and transported, particularly over long distances. Young calves are badly adapted to long journeys due to their underdeveloped immune and stress response systems. Long transport journeys for calves can result in anywhere between 1 and 23 percent mortality in a given group, from factors like diarrhea, exhaustion and exposure to heat or cold.

Over 1 million veal calves are transported around Europe each year, and even a high-welfare country like the U.K. exports the vast majority of its veal calves on long overseas journeys. In one study of Swiss dairy and veal farmers, no bedding was provided for the calves in three transports, even though this was mandated by law.

Cruelty to Calves

The handling of calves before transport is one of the key factors underpinning how they fare on the subsequent trip. Calves are often handled very roughly and many cases of young calves being punched, kicked and abused by farmworkers are on record. Whether young calves are destined to become veal, pet food or kebab meat, their presence in a system that treats them as commodities who only possess value when they are dead will always put them at risk of violence and unnecessary abuse.

Drug Use

Veal calves are given large quantities of drugs because they tend to live highly stressful lives, due to the way that their handling and rearing harshly impacts their underdeveloped bodies and psyches. 

Increased Disease Susceptibility

Veal calves, because of their stressed lives, are highly susceptible to microbial infection, like most animals raised in industrial farming. Their immune systems tend to be weakened due to their youth, their rough treatment and transportation, their living conditions and their insufficiently nutritious diet.

Restricted Space

Even in countries where veal crates are illegal, as in the U.K. since 1992 and the EU since 2007, industrial systems of raising calves continue to exist. Yet in group or barn systems welfare can still be very poor: absence of bedding has been reported in Dutch farms, where the exposed slatted floors give calves lameness and other foot injuries. The EU space allowance is also only 60 percent that of the U.K.

Veal Crates

Veal crates remain legal in the U.S., although they are banned in certain states, as well as in the E.U., the U.K. and Canada. The suffering that veal calves feel as a result of isolation is exacerbated by the intense boredom and restlessness they experience in their tiny 0.8 by 1.8-meter crates. The crates are used to induce wasting in the calf’s muscles, which they cannot use because of the lack of room. This creates the tender meat valued by consumers.

What Happens to Bull Calves of Dairy Cows That Aren’t Reared for Veal?

Veal is basically a byproduct of the dairy industry. When mother cows give birth on dairy farms, their milk is then taken from them to feed humans. Dairy farms thus tend to favor the birth of female cows, who can be future milk producers for the farm. Baby male cows do not grow up to produce milk, and so they are typically killed for their meat, which is then used to make things like veal. 

Female calves are also sent to slaughter if they are seen as genetically less valuable for the purposes of breeding or producing milk. 

Veal Facts and Statistics

Statistics and facts on veal are often lumped in with the overall beef industry, but there are specific features of veal production. 

Are Hormones and Antibiotics Used in Veal Raising?

The stressful lives of veal calves lead to a greater susceptibility to infection and disease, and as a result they are sometimes treated extensively with antibiotics. A 2012 study found the highest levels of antibiotics have been found in calves raised to be turned into veal, pigs and poultry, which is a cause for concern due to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

How Much Veal Do People Consume?

Veal is not consumed in high amounts as compared to other types of meat. In the U.S., the average consumer eats 0.2 pounds of veal per capita, down from 0.7 pounds in 2000. The leading consumers of veal by country are Germany, France and Italy. At the top of the list of the countries that produce the most veal are the Netherlands, France and Italy.

Is Veal Healthy?

Veal has been marketed as a healthier and greener alternative to beef. However, whether it is healthier than beef is a different question to whether it is healthy overall. Veal contains roughly 103 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams, over a third of the daily recommendation. However, current advice is to consume as little dietary cholesterol as possible rather than adhere to a particular limit. In a world where plant-based protein is abundant, there is no need to consume veal for protein.

Why Does Veal Taste Different From Beef?

Proponents of veal point out the calf meat is softer and more tender than beef, due to its young age and, in the case of white veal, the calf’s nutritionally inadequate diet. It supposedly has a more delicate flavor, despite the distinct absence of delicacy in how veal calves are raised and slaughtered.

Is There Such a Thing as Humane Veal?

There are efforts to improve the living conditions of veal calves. For example, the rose veal industry standard is to feed its cows what Compassion in World Farming U.K. describes as a “more normal diet.” There are still drawbacks to the rose veal industry, however. In the EU, bedding is not required for the calves after their first two weeks. Ideally, cows would be able to rest and sleep comfortably on deep beds of straw

The veal industry has tried to restore its reputation and rebrand itself as free from the stain of cruelty that blemished its name for so long. Yet in the U.S. veal crates are still legal in numerous states, and in the E.U. intensive veal farming with its over-crowded facilities is still common. Since it is standard in the veal industry to slaughter baby cows, sometimes before they have even suckled from their mother, animal advocates argue the industry can never be humane. 

Extensive Outdoor or Indoor Production

There are extensive outdoor and indoor methods of producing veal that provide much better welfare. These indoor options have bedding for the calves, access to the outdoors, ventilation and more space per calf. The outdoor options are the best for calves, and the highest standard organic farms suckle calves on an older, retired dairy cow.

RSPCA’s Freedom Food

The RSPCA standards mandate deep straw bedding and forbid the transport of veal calves abroad. They also require veal calves to have sufficient fiber and iron in their diets. However, RSPCA standards do allow for the use of individual crates.

Suckler Herds

Suckler herds allow veal calves to stay with their mothers and be weaned off their milk before slaughter. As it avoids the pain of separation, and calves get the psychological and health benefits of staying with their mother, this can be a higher welfare option.

U.K. Standards

U.K. standards require calves to have bedding, and for younger calves to consume twice the fibrous food of continental calves. The minimum amount of iron in their diet is also supposed to be higher, and older calves should be provided with more room than is required in Europe.

How Is Veal Legal?

Veal is legal because there is still demand for the product. Public awareness of veal farming has led to bans on the most egregious forms of veal rearing, like the use of veal crates and the procurement of slink veal. 

What You Can Do     

One surefire way to make sure you do not contribute to the practice of veal raising and slaughter is to exclude veal and dairy from your diet. Since veal calves are largely provided by the dairy industry, as a byproduct of breeding milk cows, the two industries are inextricably linked. Consuming dairy products all but ensures a continued place in the livestock industry for veal farming.

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