Is Britain the right place to be centre of kinder veal production?

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The Independent Online
Only a swine would eat veal. This notion is now so widely accepted that we have the mad situation in which the average French person - obvious swines, of course - eat 50 times as much veal as the average British person.

What is worse is that the English production of veal is a tenth of what it was 10 years ago. This is sad because ours is the only country where veal is required by law to be produced quite, or even very, humanely. We have a situation in which, on the continent, a huge number of calves become part of a production system that we would regard as morally indefensible, whilst here there is a minute and struggling "welfare" veal industry supplying a market which is pitifully small.

In Rosemaund, near Hereford, a semi-official agricultural research station aims to demonstrate to anyone who cares to make an appointment to visit, that veal can be produced profitably and humanely. In large, airy pens, 10 or so little calves are kept for six months, given access to non-stop warm milk, fresh water, clean bedding and are generally given the life of Riley. Of course both they and their mothers - the dairy herd - might prefer to be together. But there is no milk without the early weaning of calves. Indeed, the getting of milk is necessarily cruel, and arguably more cruel than the production of meat. Veal production is just a way of sucking cash out of the bi-product of the dairy industry, but this is an argum- ent which you can never get through to the 11-year-old thinking which passes for morality in the modern world.

Anyway, we have unwanted calves, and if they can be turned into meat after a fairly happy few months, well, for myself, I like escalope rather a lot, and I celebrate the process with a conscience which, if not easy, is certainly manageable.

Interestingly, welfare systems in Britain produce veal which is on a par in price terms with that of Dutch and French "torture" systems. Both are vulnerable to fluctuations in milk prices, but the British trade suffers a particular disadvantage, as the main supplier of British veal to supermarkets told me last week, when we were touring the Rosemaund unit. The English only eat the back end of a veal calf. This means that the fore-quarters (not to say, the offal, head and so on) are difficult to dispose of profitably. If we could get the British to eat Osso Buco (made from shin), the veal trade could start to make money out of the whole animal, which is the key to the economics of animal farming.

The Dutch and French have oceans of spare skimmed milk and whey (from their yoghurt and cheese plants). The scrupulous British should import that skimmed milk for calves kept nicely here, rather than export the animals to be fed the same milk in crates overseas.

It's not the blindest bit of good British campaigners trying to stop the export of calves. The Poles and others would merely supply the replacement beasts, in lorries travelling further and more prone to break down.

Here in Hereford we have the chance to see a far better future, though it won't please the campaigners, whose real agenda is lacto-vegetarianism. Rosemaund's demonstration unit should be able to show British consumers that welfare production is kind enough for the majority of us who are not tyrannised by sensitivity. And it should be able to show farmers - especially foreign farmers - that it is profitable. If we can then persuade the British to eat more veal, and more of the veal calf, this very tolerable industry can flourish here. That will keep more British calves in Britain. Indeed, because we have plenty of straw, Britain may be the right place for the European centre of kinder veal production. Now we have to persuade foreign housewives that welfare is an issue, which may prove to be the hardest job of all.

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