The production of veal (the meat from calves) has long been considered especially cruel because it has typically involved removing newborns from their dairy-cow mothers soon after birth and raising them alone in narrow crates (2 to 2½ feet wide) that are too small for them to even turn around in; some are tethered. This limits muscle development, thereby keeping their flesh tender; it also prevents normal social development.
To produce “white veal,” the calves are fed only a milk formula, so their flesh remains pale (due to lack of iron, which causes anemia), and then slaughtered, usually around four or five months of age. Some calves are slaughtered at just a few weeks of age (bob veal).
A backlash against veal production beginning in the 1980s resulted in a big drop in U.S. consumption. To bring back customers and attract new ones, an increasing number of farmers are raising the animals in group pens, where they have some room to walk and can interact with other calves. Some are fed grain instead of just a liquid diet. A very small percent are pasture-raised alongside their mothers, without antibiotics.
Grain- and grass-fed “red veal” has more color, marbling, and flavor—though some veal producers argue that it is not true veal (marketers may instead call it “calf meat”).
Animal rights advocates acknowledge that these methods are more humane than using crates, especially when the calves are raised outside on pasture. If it meets certain standards, some veal can now even carry the “Certified Humane” label from the nonprofit certifying agency Humane Farm Animal Care (though another agency, the Animal Welfare Institute, does not endorse any veal).
A resolution by the American Veal Association calls for all veal producers to stop using crates by the end of 2017; some states already ban the practice.
A new USDA rule that was finalized in July 2016 will also, it’s hoped, help increase humane treatment of veal calves. It requires that “downer calves”—those that cannot rise and walk on their own at the slaughterhouse—be “promptly and humanely euthanized, and prohibited from entering the food supply,” similar to regulations that ban the slaughter of adult downer cattle, which were put in place more than a decade ago largely as a precaution against mad cow disease (the idea being that animals unable to walk could be sick).
Until now, a loophole in the law allowed downer calves to be set aside to rest and given a chance to try to walk again before being slaughtered.
Enacted in response to a petition by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), this new regulation should, at least in theory, discourage workers from kicking, shocking, or otherwise harming the animals, which can make them unable to walk. In recent years, undercover investigations by HSUS have revealed despicable abuses of veal calves at slaughter.
Before you buy veal
So is there really such a thing as “humane veal”? That depends on how stringent a definition you apply. Even if they are treated more humanely, veal calves (like all livestock) are still raised under unnatural conditions and slaughtered, for good or bad, at a young age.
And be aware that veal production is a byproduct of dairy production—which itself has come under fire from animal rights advocates—since dairy cows must produce calves in order for them to continue to produce milk. Male calves are commonly raised to become veal, while female calves become dairy cows. Consuming dairy foods thus promotes veal production.
Is veal even a healthier alternative to beef? It’s fairly lean overall, but as with other “red” meats, the calorie and fat content depends on the cut, as well as how it is prepared. Veal scallops and leg cutlets are among the leanest cuts, having about 140 to 170 calories and 4 to 9 grams of fat per 3 ounces, cooked, comparable to what’s in some lean cuts of beef and pork. Even healthier are many veggie meat-substitutes and legumes, which provide good amounts of protein and raise no animal welfare concerns.