Veal: a heavy diet of hypocrisy If we want meat from humanely reared calves, we will have to learn to love the taste and the cost, says Emily Green

We ship calves abroad to the crate, then congratulate ourselves on our humanity

Since 1990, when the use of veal crates in the UK was banned, Britain has led Europe in its concern for animal welfare. It has also become European leader in hypocrisy.

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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SAP Data Migration Consultant

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am interested in speaking to Data Migr...

    Web Services Developer

    £200 - £450 per day: Harrington Starr: Web Services Developer Web Services, WP...

    Project Manager - (Housing Association, Prince 2) - Watford

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Project Manager - (Housin...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultants For Multiple UK Offices

    £18000 - £25000 per annum + DOE, OTE £40000: SThree: LONDON - BRISTOL - DUBLIN...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil