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People who consume dairy may believe they are not encouraging the slaughter of any animals by doing so. But industrial dairy production requires that cows must repeatedly be made pregnant to produce milk, bringing many calves into the world who the industry must either use productively or dispose of. One of the ways to use the male calves born as a “byproduct” of dairy production is to turn them into meat known as veal.
Veal is the meat from young cows, who are usually the unwanted male calves of the dairy industry. The calves tend to be around four months old when they are slaughtered. Around 390,000 calves were commercially slaughtered in the U.S. in 2021.
Veal has mainly been produced and consumed in a handful of European countries, but its consumption in Europe has declined over the past 20 years. Animal advocates and veterinarians consider veal production to be particularly cruel and have successfully campaigned to have its worst aspects—notably keeping the calves in tiny crates—banned in some countries.
Veal comes from young cows, but is given different names depending on how young they were at slaughter and the conditions they were raised in.
“Bob veal” is meat from newborn calves, often sold directly from dairy farms. The calves haven’t had time to use their muscles, which makes the meat more tender. About 15 percent of veal sold in the U.S. is classified as bob veal, being from calves up to three weeks old or 150 pounds in weight.
“Slink veal” is made from stillborn calves or unborn calves removed from slaughtered pregnant cows. It is illegal to produce veal this way in the U.S. and Canada, and slink veal has not been widely eaten since the Victorian era.
“Rose veal” (or “rosé veal”) comes from cows who are over six months old at slaughter. The name comes from the color of the meat, which is darker than other veal meat because the calves are older when they are killed and they are fed a diet that includes fiber, as opposed to only milk. Rose veal is largely a product of the U.K., developed in response to changing laws around veal production. It may also be marketed under other names or referred to as “humanely raised.”
Veal comes from baby cows and very young cows. Cows have a natural lifespan of 15 to 20 years, so being slaughtered at a year or younger means they have lived for less than 5 percent of their natural life. The age equivalent for a human would be about four years old or under.
Not only are the calves used for veal very young, but they have historically been housed in a way that animal welfare groups consider particularly cruel, in order to ensure the veal meat is as tender as possible.
Calves are kept in individual veal crates so small that they stop calves from moving around. This prevents their muscles from developing and makes the meat more tender. Sometimes the calves are also chained inside the crates to further restrict movement. Public pressure and campaigning resulted in the U.K. banning the use of veal crates in 1990, with the European Union following suit in 2006.1 In the U.S., some states have banned veal crates, and some veal producers have also been voluntarily phasing them out under pressure from campaigning groups.
Calves raised for veal are now more commonly kept in group pens, though in the U.S. they still spend the first two months of their lives housed individually, purportedly to make it easier to monitor their health. Images from the American Veal Association show that though group pens are an improvement on veal crates they are nonetheless still small, with slatted floors inside barren sheds.
Calves can exhibit abnormal, repetitive behaviors, known as stereotypies, when their natural instincts are frustrated. Being fed on liquid diets in particular can lead to such frustration, since it provides little opportunity for the calves to chew. As a result, many will engage in rolling and unrolling their tongues inside and outside of their mouths, as well as licking and nibbling other objects. Not having their mothers’ teat to suckle on may also contribute to these behaviors.2
Calves are born without much natural immunity. To develop healthy immune systems, they need to ingest enough good colostrum (the milk produced by mother mammals, including humans, right after they give birth) in their first 24 hours to receive maternal antibodies. Due to changes in their feeding systems and exposure to a large number of infectious agents soon after birth, calves are at very high risk of becoming ill, particularly with digestive disorders due to infection or through compromised digestive development.
Calves used for veal come from the dairy industry, so they are not allowed to stay with their mothers for longer than a day or two, to maximize the amount of the mother’s milk that can be sold. There is debate over whether it is better for the cows’ welfare to remove the calves immediately, before they’ve had a chance to bond with their mothers, or to let them stay with them for a few days, but it is clear that separating them at all goes against the cows’ natural behavior. Calves will naturally wean at around eight months but may maintain a bond with their mothers for years. Disrupting their bond is distressing for both.3
If the calves were allowed to grow to adulthood, long-term effects of early maternal separation would become more apparent, as research has found that calves who are allowed to stay with their mothers for longer are more sociable and able to cope better with changes in circumstances later in life.4
Veal calves are traditionally raised on milk substitutes, and are still often raised this way in Europe and the U.S. In the U.K., calves raised for veal are required to be fed a diet that includes a daily minimum of roughage and fiber from the age of two weeks to help their digestive systems develop normally. Milk substitute diets intentionally omit iron, which makes the meat lighter in color so that it can be marketed as white veal. This practice both causes anemia and can be damaging to the intestinal health of calves. Underdeveloped digestive systems make it harder for them to obtain nutrients, and leave them susceptible to infectious diseases and gut problems.5 Diarrhea is the most common illness among calves under three months old because they are born without much of an immune system, and it is even more of a problem for calves on an artificial diet.
While meat from very young “bob” calves might be sold directly from dairy farms, most calves are transported to veal farms or auction houses, sometimes traveling long distances. The experience is highly stressful and bad for their health. One study found that in the Netherlands, one of the major veal producers in Europe, calves are collected from different dairy farms, including some in other countries, and transported together to veal farms. Transporting them when they are only a few weeks old leaves them susceptible to illness, while the restriction on feed and water before and during transportation leaves many with diarrhea, dehydration, serious weight loss, and lameness. Respiratory illnesses are also associated with transportation.6 Conditions are so harsh that some calves die during transport, but not so many that it makes economic sense for farmers to improve transport conditions.
Some countries mainly export male dairy calves, such as Ireland, which has a huge surplus of unwanted calves due to a government-driven expansion of the dairy industry in the last decade. Around 200,000 of the 750,000 male calves born there are exported to the European veal market, enduring grueling journeys by ship for as long as 27 hours without food or water. In response to criticisms from the European Parliament, the Irish government has been trying to export the calves by plane to cut journey times—a plan called “horrific” by Ethical Farming Ireland.
There have been a number of documented instances of calves born into the dairy industry in the U.S. and elsewhere being treated brutally by farm staff, who have been recorded kicking, throwing, and dragging calves.
As calves are highly susceptible to illness, it is often necessary for them to be treated with a number of medications, particularly in the first weeks after they arrive at veal farms when they are most likely to be suffering from respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders.7
In the U.S., U.K., and other countries, with some exceptions, cattle must be stunned before slaughter so that they do not feel pain when they are killed, often by having their throats cut. Calves and other cattle are usually stunned with a captive bolt gun, which shoots a bolt through their skulls. But stunning is not always effective; one study of 998 cattle stunned and killed in a Swedish slaughterhouse found that 14 percent of calves, or about one out of seven calves, were not accurately shot.8 This means that a large number of calves are still conscious when they are shackled and hoisted into the air by their back legs, before and during the cutting of their throats.
Veal exists because
Antibiotics are permitted for calves to prevent or treat disease, and are frequently required in the first weeks that a calf spends on a veal farm. While growth hormones can be used in beef cattle in the U.S., they are not approved for use in veal calves.
Americans consume relatively little veal, at one- to two-tenths of a pound per person each year. By contrast, French per capita consumption of veal is around 9 pounds, and Italian consumption around 8 pounds. While the Netherlands is a major veal producer, only a small portion is served in hotels and restaurants domestically; most Dutch veal is consumed in Germany, Italy, and France.
Veal is considered a nutrient-dense source of protein, but eating too much red meat is not recommended by health experts. Consumption of red meat has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon polyps, and pneumonia.
Proponents of veal have tried to make the case that where veal crates have been banned and phased out, the meat is humane. Changes to the calves’ housing represent a welfare improvement, but the issue remains that the veal industry exists as a way to use otherwise “useless” calves who are born into an industry that depends on the repeated pregnancies of female cows, usually in industrial systems. For some, higher welfare veal is preferable to the calves being killed just after birth, but for many others neither option can be considered humane.
Many male calves born on dairy farms are shot, since they do not tend to be economically valuable. In the U.K., new rules against this practice and the rise in the use of sexed semen to avoid dairy cows giving birth to males have reduced the number of calves killed on farms significantly, with about 60,000 (15 percent) killed per year in the last few years.
The lives of calves in the veal industry in the United States are generally better than they used to be, now that veal crates have largely become a thing of the past. But veal, like all forms of industrial animal agriculture, remains problematic in many of its practices. Knowing the cruelties that permeate the veal industry, conventional dairies, and other forms of industrial animal agriculture, you can see why Farm Forward’s advice is to eat conscientiously, as few animals as possible, ideally none.
E.P.G. Skelhorn et al., “Public Opinion and Perception of Rosé Veal in the UK,” Meat Science 167 (September 2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meatsci.2019.108032.
Isabelle Veissier, Sara Caré, and Dominique Pomiès, “Suckling, Weaning, and the Development of Oral Behaviours in Dairy Calves,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 147, nos. 1–2 (July 2013): 11–18, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2013.05.002.
Lori Marino and Kristin Allen, “The Psychology of Cows,” Animal Behavior and Cognition 4, no. 4 (2017), https://dx.doi.org/10.26451/abc.04.04.06.2017.
Kathrin Wagner et al., “Effects of Mother Versus Artificial Rearing During the First 12 Weeks of Life on Challenge Responses of Dairy Cows,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 164 (March 2015): 1–11, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.12.010.
Marina Gavanski Coelho et al., “Comparative Study of Different Liquid Diets for Dairy Calves and the Impact on Performance and the Bacterial Community During Diarrhea,” Nature Scientific Reports 12 (August 2022), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-17613-1.
Francesca Marcato et al., “Transport of Young Veal Calves: Effects of Pre-Transport Diet, Transport Duration and Type of Vehicle on Health, Behavior, Use of Medicines, and Slaughter Characteristics,” Frontiers in Veterinary Science 7 (December 2020), https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.576469.
Sylvia Mitrenga et al., “Veterinary Drug Administration in German Veal Calves: An Exploratory Study on Retrospective Data,” Preventive Veterinary Medicine 183 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.prevetmed.2020.105131.
S. Atkinson, A. Velarde, and B. Algers, “Assessment of Stun Quality at Commercial Slaughter in Cattle Shot with Captive Bolt” Animal Welfare 22, no. 4 (2013): 473–481, https://doi.org/10.7120/096272126.96.36.1993.