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This issue, the finale of 2009: Veal - The Greener (and Rosier) Side

Previous issues in 2009: The Guide to Knives, The Seasonality of Meat, The Guide to Cookware,

Sustainable Seafood - Informed Decisions, The Salmon Debate.
Upcoming issues for 2010:  Bread, Spices, Olive Oil and more

Veal - The Greener (and Rosier) Side



The Greener (and Rosier) Side

by Mario Fiorucci

as published in
Edible Toronto Logo

This article was the cover story in Edible Toronto's Winter 2009/2010 edition.  Gail Gordon Oliver, the Publisher and Editor of the magazine, asked me to write an 800 word article on "Red Veal", a meat that has recently experienced a surge in popularity in the U.S..  Well, 2200 words later I emailed her an article and hoped she wouldn't notice that it was almost triple the length that was allotted in her Winter edition and only briefly discussed Red Veal.  Thankfully, Gail realized the importance of the topic, published it and made it the cover story.  As a result, we have been in discussions with numerous organic dairy farmers in Ontario and I am confident that we will be creating a new industry in Ontario in 2010 - organic veal!  This chain of events is a monumental achievement to end 2009 as it brings the organic dairy industry one step closer to complete sustainability, and lays the road ahead for 2010.


It has been a busy year, evident by the fact that this Live to Eat issue is only our 5th of the year (so our "monthly" newsletter turned into more of a sporaedic bi-monthly newsletter).  But, to our credit, we covered some great topics and are happy to announce that the Live to Eat readership now exceeds 11,000 world-wide, increasing daily!  Rather than issue a holiday greeting email, we thought it best to end the year with this article - because together we are making a difference.  As Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


On behalf of all the staff at The Healthy Butcher, we wish you a Happy Holidays to you and yours and Best Wishes for a Joyous and Prosperous New Year.



Veal - The Greener (and Rosier) Side

continued below...





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A limited supply of pasture raised veal will be available at The Healthy Butcher on Tuesday, December 22.
Pasture Raised Veal


VOLUME 32 ... VEAL - The Greener (and Rosier) Side

Do you enjoy lattes and cappuccinos? How about a wholesome fruit and yogurt bowl every now and then? And cheese: Do you sprinkle Parmigiano on your pasta, enjoy melted mozzarella on a pizza, or perfectly warmed and oozy triple-cream Brie all by itself?

If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then you really ought to reconsider eating veal if you’ve given it up (and make sure to read on if you haven’t). Nope, that’s not a typo. Such a statement would seem to condemn me for supporting one of the most heinous sectors of the food industry; but you see, I’m not talking about the veal that’s available at your average grocery store. The thing is there is nothing technically immoral or wrong about the notion of raising and eating the meat from young cattle. The immorality only arises when you combine greed with an utter disrespect for nature in an industrialized era that produces and promotes cheap food. Now that’s a mouthful. Allow me to examine the industry and offer some advice for the road ahead.

Veal Defined

Veal is the meat from a calf, or young beef animal. In Canada, the law defines veal as the meat from any bovine animal that has a maximum carcass weight of four hundred pounds. Veal calves typically reach that weight at five to sixth months. Some argue that this is too young an age at which to slaughter an animal for meat; following this dictum, then, you should be avoiding most meat other than beef and mutton. (The average age at slaughter for Cornish game hens is three-and-a half weeks; for ducks, five weeks; chickens, five to nine weeks; turkeys, sixteen weeks; pigs, twenty-two weeks; and lambs, twenty-four weeks.) I see myself as a conscious omnivore and believe that raising animals for meat can be accomplished in sustainable manners that efficiently utilize energy. Veal is no exception.

Pasture Raised Black Angus Veal Regardless of the exact weight or age at time of slaughter, the key point here is that there is no distinction between breeds of bovine used for veal. There are hundreds of cow breeds; some have been bred for their meat characteristics – Black Angus, Limousin, Hereford, Charolais,Wagyu, and the list goes on – while others have been bred for their milk-producing capabilities, such as the Holstein-Fresian (which make up well over 80 percent of dairy cattle), Guernsey, Jersey, and a handful of others.

Of all the cow breeds, probably 99 percent of veal sold worldwide comes from the dairy breeds, mainly the Holstein-Fresian. The Holstein is that unmistakable black-and-white-patched, long-legged creature with a massive pink udder. Some industry folk would call veal a byproduct of the dairy industry, and there’s a very good reason for this: In order to keep producing milk, dairy cows must take a break from milk producing every year and have a new calf. As you can imagine, the number of calves born to dairy cows is staggering – far more than is necessary to provide replacements for retiring dairy cows given that the average Holstein is productive for six years. The question naturally arises, what happens to all those calves, especially all those male calves (which presumably make up half of the calves born) that can’t produce milk?

Right now, they face three possible fates: some go to farms to be raised for veal; some are sent to slaughterhouses when they’re a couple of weeks old and marketed as “bob” veal; and others are slaughtered very soon after birth, with the majority of these ending up in the hands of large, commercial pet-food producers. Consumer demand for veal essentially dictates which fate the unneeded calves will follow. Of the three possible fates, it would seem that raising them as veal would be the most sustainable and humane option.  Yet according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, veal consumption plummeted from 8.6 pounds per person annually in 1944 to 0.41 pounds in 2004. During the same period, the dairy industry has dramatically grown, thereby producing even more calves. I blame this conundrum on the stupidity of the veal industry as a whole, in its creation of one of the most inhumane and utterly disgusting animal husbandry practices humankind has ever seen.

White Veal

The multi-billion-dollar global white-veal industry is based on producing milky-coloured, tender meat. To accomplish this, calves have traditionally been confined to crates and fed a low-iron liquid “milk replacement” diet. The crates are about thirty inches wide and seventy-two inches long, therefore prohibiting the calf from turning around; all they can do is stand up, lie down, and eat. By promoting white-coloured meat, the industry has had the justification to feed the animals an all-liquid milk-replacer diet that is deficient in iron and fibre and composed primarily of cheap industrial bi-products. It follows that low iron intake and total lack of exercise inhibit the calves’ ability to produce red blood cells, resulting in reduced hemoglobin concentrations and, eventually, anemia. But don’t worry: there’s always been just the right amount of antibiotics in the mix to make sure all is A-okay.

Veal crates were prohibited in the U.K. in 1990, and were phased out of the E.U. in 2007. Although lagging behind, the board of the American Veal Association passed a resolution recommending that all veal producers in the U.S. convert to group housing by 2017. In Ontario, supposedly no veal producers use crates and instead use stalls, hutches or pens. (I’m still waiting for a call back from a producer to get details.) Although veal crates cause the most suffering, the standards for group pens don’t provide for significantly better living conditions. I was horrified to find this statement on the Ontario Veal Association website: “Exercise, either too much or not enough, has no effect on the tenderness or quality of the meat produced.” To me, that’s an ignorant statement that sums up the mentality of the conventional veal industry.

For the love of Mother Nature and all things holy in this world, avoid white veal. It is indefensible.

Red Is The New White

After decades of trumpeting anemic, white-fleshed veal, I guarantee you that the industry will completely switch gears in the next ten years and promote darker-coloured veal referred to as rosť veal, red veal, or even grain-fed veal. This new veal industry is a marketer’s dream come true. I can envision the flashiness of red-veal labels plastered over plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays.

Calves for rosť veal are generally fed a more “normal” diet consisting of both milk and cereal-based feed, without restriction of iron intake. The higher iron content will naturally create meat that is darker in colour; it won’t be the deep red of an older, full-grown beef, but red veal is definitively redder than white veal. The move towards a higher-in-iron diet, coupled with the fact that the use of crates for raising veal is on its way out around the world, will no doubt be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the term “red veal” will not automatically mean humanely raised.

There will be higher-welfare – dare I say, organic – methods of raising red veal that will see calves reared in small groups in straw-bedded sheds with adequate space allowance per calf and access to the outdoors when weather permits. Conversely, there will also be lower welfare, intensive systems of raising red veal that will feature group pens stuffed with eighty calves housed on extremely uncomfortable wooden slat floors with no access to natural light or fresh air, and with little roughage in their diet. So be forewarned – not all red veal is created equally.

Pasture Raised Veal

The only veal we sell at The Healthy Butcher is pasture-raised. It is marvellous meat, raised on – you guessed it – pasture and, of course, mother’s milk. The photos accompanying this article showcase the veal and beef from one of our favourite grass farmers – the Webers in Paisley, Ontario. David and Ellen Weber and their five children are a lovely Mennonite family who use nature to its fullest potential.

Pasture Raised Veal - Suckling Mom On their farm, calving only happens in the spring when it is naturally supposed to occur. (Cows would never give birth in the fall without human intervention; they instinctively know that a baby calf would not survive the harsh winter.) So during the summer and autumn, the baby calves roam the pasture while occasionally suckling their moms. Calves are butchered in the autumn or early winter. Take notice, however, that the cows in the photos from the Weber farm are all-black; that’s because they are the Black Angus breed. Remember I mentioned that the vast majority of veal come from the black-and-white spotted Holstein breed as a byproduct of the dairy industry? As sustainable and humane as the Webers’ pasture-raised veal are, it does not solve the problem of dealing with all the unneeded calves from the dairy industry.  The Webers and other farmers raising 100-percent-pasture-raised-veal know that it would be impossible to raise Holsteins strictly on pasture.

Holsteins are advantageous for dairy production because they convert the majority of energy from food into milk, leaving very little for the development of muscle and fat. Holsteins have, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of the River Cottage T.V. and book series bluntly puts it, “a distinctly bony behind.” Furthermore, without a grain ration, Holsteins simply won’t thrive.

I prefer to describe pasture-raised veal from beef breeds as “young beef,” since the term more accurately captures the essence of what it is. But now we’re back to square one: Although pasture-raised veal from suckler herds (that is, from typical beef breeds) is a commendable meat product, it does not mend the gap we have in the dairy industry.

The Road Ahead

If the goal of the organic dairy industry is to be fully sustainable, then it is not acceptable for organic calves to suffer the same fate as non-organic. We must find ways to be “calf neutral” and to humanely deal with redundant dairy calves. Thankfully, there are a couple of options. The first option is to set out clear and specific rules, meeting the highest welfare standards, for raising organic veal from dairy breeds. Eastbrook Farm in the U.K. is one of the pioneers of the industry, producing organic rosť veal. The veal are raised in a loose housing system supplemented with free access to outdoor pastures during the spring and summer months. The calves eat pasture, organic cereal-based feed, and milk from a nurse cow. (The farm takes older cows retired from the dairy herd to use as surrogate mothers for the calves. Brilliant!)

Another option is for dairy farmers to look beyond the milk-producing capabilities of Holsteins and realize that more value can be gained from a cow that produces a good amount of milk but also has value in its meat. This can be accomplished by either mating the dairy cows with the bull of a prime beef-producing variety, with the resulting offspring much more disposed towards fattening for meat, or by selecting a robust dairy cow breed that has both good milk and meat attributes.

Overall, finding a solution to utilizing redundant dairy calves would contribute to a more holistic farming system and greater respect for animal welfare. It would seem that the two options above are cutting edge, and to a certain extent they are…to our generation. But really, isn’t either option really a move back to old-fashioned methods of farming?

Why did we ever move away from holistic farming? A lot of it comes down to dollars and cents. I spoke to farmers from both Organic Meadow and Harmony Organic, the two largest organic dairy co-operatives in Ontario. Between these two organic dairy producers, more than twenty-five hundred male calves are born annually, without a solid ethical veal industry to deal with them. A common theme ran through my conversations with these farmers: They all believe that organic veal should exist and can exist, but they explain that if they were to raise organic veal, there might not be anyone to buy it because it would inherently be significantly more expensive to raise – and to buy – than conventional, feedlot veal. As Linda Baumberger, a Harmony Organic farmer, eloquently explains: “It boils down to the consumer. The first thing people shave from their budget is food. Even among neighbouring farmers, people choose to buy their meat from Walmart because it’s cheaper.”

Indeed, as a society we have moved food to the bottom of our priority list. In 1950, the average North American householders spent 30 percent of their income on food; by 2004, that number had dropped to 12 percent and is now even lower. But are we not fooling ourselves? Are we not paying for this cheap food in other ways, like our own health and the Earth’s ecosystem?

Eating veal is an ancient culinary tradition, recorded in thousands of years of literature, history and scripture. The cuisines of Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and the Czech Republic would be naked without veal. We are at the tipping point of a new veal industry that in the next ten years can either repeat recent history and look like something out of a horror flick, or repeat ancient history and look like nature. As Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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