Lost animals of the dairy industry

Unwanted calves (Bos primigenius) are the lost animals of the dairy industry. That’s how David Bowles, director of communications at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), describes these calves. British consumers care so much about animal welfare that most of us don’t eat veal (calf meat). We think veal farming is cruel. But here’s the irony: instead of eating veal, we condemn unwanted calves either to die very young or to endure long journeys to veal farms abroad.

A dairy cow has to get pregnant once a year to keep her milk coming. Currently in Britain, her working lifespan is four lactations on average, with three ‘dry’ months between each lactation. Half her calves are male (aka bobby calves) and some of her female calves aren’t needed to replace her. So what happens to the excess calves? The farmer has to choose: either kill them within a few days of birth, or sell them to be raised for veal. In other words, the dairy industry relies on killing calves.

We could eat veal. The English Beef and Lamb Executire (EBLEX) offers a Quality Standard for veal. But as celebrity chef and farmer Jimmy Doherty says, veal has an image problem in Britain. In fact, for many British people veal is taboo. It’s not because we have any problem about eating meat from young animals. Lamb is in our shopping baskets, slaughtered under one year of age. Pigs too are slaughtered when only a few months old. Why not veal?

Our British anti-veal taboo came about when veal calves were reared here in a truly horrific system. Calves were incarcerated in tiny crates so that their muscles wouldn’t become fibrous like those of a normal beef animal. Calves were fed a fake-milk diet when they were old enough to eat grass, so that they’d be anaemic and their muscles would stay white.

Intensive veal production was incredibly cruel and I think that it didn’t even make sense from the consumer’s point of view. Who says veal should be very tender and white? I think this foodie fashion got way out of hand. If you want to eat cattle, cook their meat using the excellent recipes for beef. If you want very tender white meat, eat chicken. Or don’t eat meat at all. But I do want to point out that vegetarians who drink milk are supporting the production of ‘lost animals’ which get killed. As for veganism, people can make their own choices. But this blog shows my opinions about livestock and game.

Anyway, veal crates have been consigned to history here in Britain and in other countries of the European Union (EU). A campaign by Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) led to bans on veal crates (scroll down for the section on veal). Those bans came into force in Britain in 1990 and across the EU in 2007. The fight continues in other parts of the world. For example, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) tells us that crates are still used on veal farms in some states.

Since veal crates are gone here, if British farmers want to raise veal they raise rose veal. That’s ‘rose’ as in rose wine: pink, not white or red. Mr Doherty’s recent documentary series showed the slaughter of excess dairy calves. Meat Trade News Daily tells us how Mr Doherty is horrified to see ‘doe-eyed calves’ shot and he wants them to be raised for rose veal.

The Farmers Guardian says that the RSPCA backs Mr Doherty’s call for male dairy calves to be reared for rose veal. In fact, says Rachel Shields at the Independent, the RSPCA invites us to eat British veal with a clear conscience.

Even the RSPCA’s Freedom Food label is awarded to some veal products (scroll down for the section on veal). Here’s what the RSPCA says about veal production and the veal purchased in Britain. The Dairy Site says that veal production in the UK has changed. Jeremy Hunt at Farmers Weekly describes modern veal farming in Britain. Our largest supermarket chain, Tesco, is phasing out foreign veal.

Will British consumers change our minds? We’re conservative people on the whole and we do love animals. The Grocer tells retailers that despite the RSPCA giving veal its seal of approval there’s a long road ahead before public opinion changes on this emotive issue. Which? asks whether veal will catch on with British meat-eaters. Tracy McVeigh at the Observer is more optimistic, saying that British veal is poised for an ‘ethical’ comeback.

The dairy industry here is under pressure (see my tag ‘milk’). Clive Aslett at the Mail says that British dairy farmers can’t afford to be compassionate about killing calves. He may be right. On the other hand, buying high-welfare rose veal could be another way for consumers to support our dairy farmers.

An expanding British rose veal industry could benefit dairy farmers in a business sense. It could benefit them also in terms of infection management. Excessive livestock transport may be promoting the spread of diseases, including tuberculosis (see my tag ‘diseases’).

So there are business reasons and disease management reasons to buy British rose veal. Anyway, excessive livestock transport is cruel. CIWF says that around six million calves are reared for veal within the EU every year and that there are welfare concerns about standard EU veal production. RSPCA tells us about welfare issues in the dairy industry (scroll down for the section on dairy calves). CIWF campaigns to end long distance live transport of animals, including calves. CIWF tells us how retailers lead the way towards ending live calf exports.

Before I wrote this blog entry, I was anti-veal like nearly every British person I’ve ever met. But now I’m going to look out for Freedom Food approved British veal. I’m not even sure what it tastes like but a mild, tender cousin of beef sounds delicious. Anthea Gerrie at the Independent says that succulent veal has had an ethical and culinary makeover. She writes of Italian dishes. I’ve noticed a whole section of veal dishes on the menu of my favourite restaurant, which is Italian. Never considered ordering one of those dishes but now perhaps I will.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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19 Responses to Lost animals of the dairy industry

  1. sharechair says:

    Interesting and thoughtful! (but I still won’t eat veal) 🙂

  2. Wade says:

    Truthfully I don’t have to even consider the ethical issues surrounding eating veal. I don’t eat it because it’s too expensive.

    • argylesock says:

      Good point. Why is veal expensive where you are? Did the link I posted about crate bans show that the crate system is still in use there? My guess is that it won’t be.

      If veal were to become more popular over here, I see potential for it to be a relatively cheap meat because there’s such an ample supply of unwanted calves. But like any industry it’d need to get past a phase of being expensive and unfashionable.

  3. eqfe says:

    Dairy farms are indeed numberous, and 60% of all calves from dairy farms are male, and the vast majority of those go to veal production, rarely in any way that would be considered humane. The crate system is only banned in a few states, none of those major produces. Calves for veal are normally slaughtered under a month in age. which makes them under 60 pounds before butchering.
    In Canada what you call rose veal is normally called red veal, and I wasn’t very impressed with it the few times I’ve eaten it.

    • argylesock says:

      What didn’t you like about Canadian red/rose veal? I’m not sure whether you imply that you eat crated veal and like it. If so, you’re the only person I know who (to my knowledge) eats crated veal. I think I probably ate it once at age 13 when on a school French exchange but I remember nothing except that it was a novelty to me and that it was coated in breadcrumbs. Escalope de veau.

      Now that I’m adult I wouldn’t touch crate-reared veal if you paid me. If I interpret your words correctly, you do eat it. Why?

  4. eqfe says:

    The thing is that one silage is introduced, humanely or not the resulting animal now produces immature beef, not anything recognizable as veal. Argentines accustomed to two year or older grass fed beef often make similar comments about US beefl s slaughterd at around 16-18 month as being immaturel

    • argylesock says:

      This, and your remarks about Canadian red/rose veal, lead me to think that people’s acquired tastes are an issue. Rather as I dislike well-hung game because I’m not used to it, other meat eaters maybe dislike beef from animals under two years old. In that sense, I’m encouraged about the prospects for rose veal in Britain. Perhaps it will catch on if people have no expectations, and if the meat is well marketed with celebrity endorsement, healthy-eating messages and attractive recipes.

      For me as you know, ready-made foods are the way forward, so I hope to see veal rissoles, veal cottage pie and cold slices of roast veal.

      • eqfe says:

        Of course acquired tastes matter, but given my budget, I don’t experiment with ingredients that are more more expense than those I already buy. I’ll stick to the cheapest cuts of meat for now..

  5. ellig123 says:

    It’s funny that you chose to post this tonight, I’ve just been having this exact conversation with a friend in the pub tonight. I don’t eat meat myself but I’m pro-veal – meat just isn’t for me but if people are going to keep eating it and if we’re going to continue to have an excess number of dairy calves then it’s a far better solution to the ‘problem’. The friend I was talking to hadn’t given much thought to dairy calves but said that she had no problem with veal and has eaten it herself – definitely no difference to lamb as far as I’m concerned (more of a justification for it, if anything, given that the unwanted calves are a ‘byproduct’ of another industry and aren’t being bred just for raising for meat).

    I suppose it’s a bit like the attitudes we have towards ‘pet’ species here that are eaten in other countries. I read an article today about how Philip Schofield has been the subject of complaints after tweeting a photo of himself eating guinea-pig in Peru. He defended his actions, and rightly so.

    • eqfe says:

      I’m not a fan of guinea pig, but I have eaten it in Peru, and it has been domesticated as a food source for centuries.

      • argylesock says:

        It certainly has, hence the name ‘guinea pig’. I’ve kept many guinea pigs as pets and, so long as it weren’t my individual (named) pet animal, I’d like to try eating it.

        One person I knew who’d seen it served in Peru found it ‘absolutely disgusting’ that the whole roast guinea pig was served, still looking like the animal it was. I didn’t agree: only a century or so ago, that was a common style of serving rabbits here. My grandmother’s copy of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management iirc says that it’s ‘popular with children’ to serve a rabbit with its ears on. Just a matter of what’s expected, I think.

        Somebody else who’d eaten guinea pig said the meat was very fatty. That could be handled by a skilled chef – roast on a spit or trivet, serve with a sharp fruity sauce. Did you find it fatty?

    • argylesock says:

      I’m so glad you support what I’ve said here. Your professional knowlege of the dairy industry gives weight to your opinion.

      As it happens I didn’t see the photos of Mr Schofield eating guinea pig. But I agree that he was right to do so and hope that the animal had been humanely reared and slaughtered.

  6. eqfe says:

    Guinea pig is fatty for a rodent, but not compared to most meats. I dislike eating small animals or birds too many bones for the amount of meat.

    • Wade says:

      And I didn’t answer your question I’ve eaten quite a bit of veal in the past and enjoyed it I doubt if d be able to afford it again so I probably won’t eat it again

  7. Pingback: Biotechnology for livestock | Science on the Land

  8. Hd0bBxDd says:

    498155 878561Nice blog! Only problem is im running Firefox on Debian, and the site is looking a little.. weird! Perhaps you may want to test it to see for yourself. 462274

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