Britain is the third-largest milk producing country in the EC; it also has much the lowest veal consumption. The vast British dairy industry produces, as an unwanted by-product, as many as 1.3 million bull calves every year - which we are then too squeamish, or too penny-pinching, to rear properly to our own fine standards. So we ship them abroad, then congratulate ourselves on our delicate, humane aversion to veal.
It is important to understand the basic facts of the dairy industry to appreciate how we reached the state of affairs that provoked the protests against the transport of live calves through the port of Shoreham, West Sussex. The milk we drink comes from dairy cows, which calve every year, both to produce more dairy stock and to make the cows lactate to produce the milk we drink. We keep the heifers as future milking cows and sell the bull calves - at least half of them abroad and mainly for veal.
It is a huge industry. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, there are approximately 41,600 dairy farmers in Britain, about half on medium-sized farms, milking an estimated 2,676,000 cows of some 14bn litres of milk a year. A single cow will deliver around 5,344 litres a year, which we consume at a rate of about 2.24 litres a week.
The bull calf is not only redundant to the milk industry but, coming from Friesian, Hereford and Jersey herds, it is of little interest to beef farmers, who prefer Aberdeen Angus, Charolais or Limousin. They are even redundant as studs, because most farmers use "AI" (artificial insemination) and retain only a few bulls to cover cows that have failed to conceive via the syringe.
Our dairy population of nearly 2.7 million cows will produce roughly 2.7 million calves each year, about half of which will be bulls. According to 1993 figures issued by the Chief Veterinary Officer, we export nearly half a million of these to EC countries alone, almost all destined for veal crates. (There do not appear to be figures for stocks sent elsewhere abroad, though the numbers are likely to be high.)
Why do we not just raise and slaughter our calves at home? The answer is there is almost no market. According to the National Farmers Union, the French annually eat 5.6kg of veal per head, the Italians eat 4kg, but the British only 0.1kg. And for our 41,600 dairy farms, the NFU estimates that we have as few as 20 veal producers, whose total output is only 5,000 calves.
"Until producers are confident there is a market," says NFU spokesman Trevor Hayes, "they will not set up an enterprise." With no market, the costs of the relatively humane "loose-house" production appear impossibly high to most farmers. John Nix, of theDepartment of Agricultural Economics at Wye College, calculates a gross profit margin of only £30 per calf - scant reward for the labour involved in rearing an animal for the necessary 70-100 days.
The Shoreham protests have forced retailers to show their hands. Sainsbury responded by insisting its veal (its cheapest line is pre-packed mince at £1.79/lb) was British. Tesco claimed its Dutch veal was raised to British standards, then this week announced it would switch to British production. However, unless there is a dramatic increase in the British appetite for veal, the export of live calves is bound to continue: we are not eating enough to sustain the industry.
Continental Europe may begin to express some distaste for the way the meat is produced. NFU figures indicate a dwindling European appetite for veal: in 1980 10 EU member states ate 831,000 tonnes of veal, just over a decade later, 12 member states consumed 680,000 tonnes. Mr Hayes credits this to "a high price relative to other forms of meat and to discomfort at the continental rearing methods".
If sensibilities are changing, there could be an export market for humanely reared British veal. But a more realistic solution to the industry's problems, according to Richard North, author of Death by Regulation: The Butchery of the British Meat Industry, would be to eliminate the distinction between the dairy and beef breeds. "It's barbaric the way they have specialised the breeds," he says. "The logical thing to do is to go back to less intensive farming of dual-purpose breeds, such as G a lloways, so that the bull calves of dairy cows can be used for beef."
The creation of a viable British veal industry is also threatened from another quarter. This is the wave of closures hitting British abattoirs and forcing ever longer journeys between farm and slaughterhouse. The issue will concern both animal-rights pr o testors and ethical farmers who care about their animals' welfare.
Since 1992 we have lost 200 out of 780 rural abattoirs, and licences for 100 more may be revoked by April. Miriam Parker, assistant director of the Humane Slaughter Organisation, looks back further, claiming that since1987 in England and Wales alone, almost half have shut. While she and Mr North applaud the demise of the filthier practitioners, both believe the closures are now hitting responsible businesses, whose old premises may not meet the demands of new European regulations.
Where existing premises cannot be upgraded, the abattoir owner is thrown into expensive battles with planning officers and local communities who seldom welcome slaughterhouses. No issue is more crucial to the future of British meat, if we are to slaughter animals without subjecting them to stressful journeys and our farmers to the responsibility of paying for them.
But the question remains: can we learn to eat the animal we pity so much? British veal, unlike the milky-white flesh of caged calves, will be pink, occasionally even red. Received wisdom is that the tete-de-veau set - that elite band of chefs renowned for unflinchingly serving veal - would prize it about as highly as English wine. It certainly would not fit the description of high quality veal in Larousse Gastronomique: "pale meat, smelling of milk, with satiny white fat". But then nor does the flesh ofa calf reared in a crate.
Paul Rankin, chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred Roscoff restaurant in Belfast, does not serve veal. After a year-long experiment with a local farmer supplying British veal, he says, "I don't see the point in eating sick and tortured animals."
So, anyone for British escalopes with vermouth and lemon? Or UK osso bucco? West Country schnitzel? If we wish to satisfy our thirst for milk and respect our famous fondness for animals, the answer may have to be yes to all three.