The internal assessment by the Brussels Commission found that banning both the use of crates and the force-feeding of calves on a liquid diet based on milk powder would barely affect the profitability of veal production.
Some senior officials in the Commission's agriculture department want to use these findings to put a proposal banning the rearing of calves in crates before European farm ministers.
They anticipate support for the proposal from the new agriculture commissioner, the Austrian Franz Fischler, who is likely to take office shortly after approval by the European Parliament, although some officials dealing with the beef and veal trade may oppose it.
This will come as good news to Britain, which is pressing for a Europe-wide ban. Angela Browning, the junior agriculture minister, is to tour European capitals in the near future to press Britain's view.
The Dutch meat trade said at the weekend that all 180,000 calves exported to the Netherlands from the UK can be reared in loose boxes instead of crates, if the exporter wishes.
But animal welfare groups yesterday cast doubt on the Dutch initiative, arguing that it could not be verified and did nothing to end the suffering of animals being transported long distances.
The Commission wants the debate on the Community's veal laws - which effectively allow the current system to operate - to be reviewed by EU agriculture ministers this year and a possible ban discussed.
The issue was not due for reconsideration until 1997, but officials now say that events in Britain have made a review urgent, although it expects stiff opposition from big veal producers such as France, where the industry is worth almost £1bn.
Last week Frank Leguen de Lacroix, assistant to the head of Directorate-General Six (the EU's agriculture ministry) said: "There is a general majority of people in the Commission who would like a complete ban on veal crates. If you rear veal calves you should go for a small pen with 10 calves. There is no danger in putting them together after they are eight weeks old."
Commission officials are optimistic that Mr Fischler, who as Austrian agriculture minister passed several animal welfare laws, will support this view, but they are concerned that even with expected support from new EU member states - Austria, Sweden and
Finland - they still may not muster enough votes to see the proposal through.
William Waldegrave, the Agriculture Minister, has refused to ban shipment of live calves to veal crates unilaterally, saying that it is illegal under EU law.
But the pressure group Compassion in World Farming claims that the Government could justify the move on grounds of public morality or the life and health of animals - which caused Britain to prevent the export of horses for slaughter.
Next month agriculture ministers are set to debate whether to reduce the present 24-hour limit for the live transport of animals in Europe to 15 hours - a move which, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Britain will support.
The Commission says it is looking into proposals for a "police force" to monitor whether lorries transporting live animals are abiding by the rules.
But officials are divided as to whether this should be a voluntary body such as the RSPCA, Commission staff, or inspectors from EU member states.Reuse content