The ethics of eating: The appeal of veal

It's been banished from British menus for nearly 20 years. But now Janet Street-Porter has spoken out to change our minds about this most succulent of meats. And celebrity chefs are queing up to join the campaign

By Martin Hickman

Published: 02 September 2006

Veal stirs the emotion like few other foods; only foie gras can compete in the public's mind as a clear, open and shut case of animal cruelty. And in the past, who could really disagree?

Traditionally the male calves of dairy cows, which are too bony for beef, have been turned into veal in an undeniably unpleasant manner: reared in the dark in tiny wooden crates too small for them to lie down or turn around in. Such cramped conditions atrophy the muscles, producing the tender white meat beloved of gourmands.

We have had little stomach for producing such veal here, but nor have we taken to the mass export of unwanted calves to the continent. Veal has become a frowned upon food - banished from the menu of all but a few restaurants.

Now it is back - or at least it will be, if a newly-formed veal alliance has its way. A campaign has been launched by farmers and chefs to put the case for veal to the public on what might seem perverse to die-hard opponents - animal welfare grounds.

The Good Veal Campaign is promoting not the bad old veal produced in the UK before the crate system was banned in 1990 but the new veal - where calves are reputed to live as happy a life as any pig. The campaign was launched yesterday by River Cottage TV presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the cook Sophie Grigson at the Organic Food Awards in Bristol.

The veal lobby has also been given another lift - by Janet Street Porter, The Independent on Sunday's editor-at-large, who gave veal the seal of approval after investigating it for Channel 4's F Word. In the nine days since the programme, veal sales have risen 45 per cent at Waitrose in the first week alone. Supporters say British veal, which is less intensively-reared rose veal, so named because of its light pink colour, is delicious and wholesome. As versatile as chicken, they say it is especially liked by children and can be used in everything from sandwiches to stir fries.

So should we be overturning our national reluctance to veal? And just how kind are modern farming techniques to calves?

According to Compassion in World Farming, British veal, especially the organic variety, is now acceptable and it is supporting the Good Veal Campaign.

But others are less enamoured, pointing out that, regardless of the demise of the crate system, the dairy industry swells cows with excess milk and kills their male infants while just a few months old. To understand how modern veal production works, one must shine a light on the dark ways of the veal crate, which still operate across mainland Europe. Under the crate system, bull calves are separated from their mothers days after birth, placed in boxes measuring 2ft by 4ft and fed on a liquid diet. They live in that wooden box for their short, anaemic lives - no longer than five months.

For the thousands of bull calves sent to the continent, where veal has traditionally been prized, there is the added burden of the journey. Calves just a few days old are packed standing into trucks for up to 20 hours at a time with few breaks as they rumble their way to in Holland and France. After animal rights activists succeeded in banning use of the crate in the UK after 1990, they turned their attention to the live export trade.

In some of the bitterest clashes between public and police, thousands of members of the public turned out in the early 1990s to block veal trucks, ships and planes at Coventry airport, Brightlingsea, in Essex, Shoreham, in East Sussex, Dover and Plymouth. One woman, Jill Phipps, was killed in 1995 when she was run over by a lorry outside Coventry airport.

The protesters failed to prevent the export trade, but saw it stop when BSE led to a European ban on British cattle. But since the European Commission approved the lifting of the ban last May, exports have resumed and as many as 500,000 calves a year are sent abroad.

Supporters of veal insist that unwanted dairy calves should be raised for meat in Britain, where welfare standards are higher than on the continent. Here, calves are kept in more spacious conditions. Modern organic farmers say their animals roam outside and are fed roughage as well as liquids, and are suckled by older cows from the dairy herd. They live to six months, twice as long as the slowest growing chicken, longer than many pigs and lambs.

Helen Browning, who rears organic veal at Eastbrook Farm in Wiltshire, says: "We have got to relaunch veal and make it clear that it is produced humanely.

"There is a big opportunity for people to start experimenting with veal, to eat something that is extremely tasty and help solve an animal welfare problem."

But veal producers have a difficult job. According to the Meat and Livestock Commission, just 1 per cent of the public eat veal at home. Current British veal production is tiny - just 100 tons, 5 per cent of the 2,000 tons consumed annually. And it is falling, partly because Britain has ended a special subsidy under the Common Agricultural Policy subsidy. Between July 2005 and July this year, the number of slaughtered calves fell from 136 to 21.

The remaining 95 per cent of our veal is imported from Europe, where welfare standards are lower. Even though a ban on crates across the EU takes effect next year, campaigners say the continent's farms still have slatted floors without comfortable resting areas or bedding.

Angelique Davies, the campaigns officer at Compassion in World Farming, says: "We are encouraged by moves towards commercially raised calves in the UK that use higher welfare systems. Even when the veal crate is outlawed in Europe, at the end of 2006, continental veal systems may often still fall short of UK welfare standards."

Another animal welfare organisation, Viva (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals) has a different view: organic veal production may be less cruel but it still does not match the standards for free-range beef. "There are degrees of cruelty," says Viva's campaigns director Toni Vernelli, a critic of the UK dairy industry. "Rose veal is less cruel than white veal but you are still killing a baby and eating its flesh. To try to tout it as a kind of humane meat as is hypocritical because they are still animals being slaughtered before they reach a fraction of their normal life span."

But among chefs such as Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall, such pleading falls on deaf ears. "They are slaughtered at about six months - old for any porker," he says. "An average bacon in a supermarket would have been slaughtered at four or five months." He has chosen to take on such an unfashionable cause because to duck the issue would be "feeble". People have a choice about what they want to happen to bull calves - "if you don't produce organic veal with a high welfare system then they will either be shot at birth or transported to Europe."

Janet Street-Porter said: "If we drink milk and eat cheese, what do we think will happen to the male calves produced by a dairy herd?"

From pan to plate in just half an hour

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Pan-to-oven organic veal chops with lemon and capers

The pan-to-oven method is a quick and neat way of cooking any chop, and this is one of my favourite recipes. Steam some broccoli while cooking, and your meal will be ready in less than half an hour.

serves 4

4 organic veal chops
1 lemon
a few sprigs of thyme
a little olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon small capers, rinsed
double cream, to taste

Put the chops in a shallow dish. Add a couple of strips of zest finely pared from the lemon and a squeeze of its juice (keep the lemon, you will need more juice later), plus the thyme and a good slosh of olive oil.

Turn the chops over a few times with the flavourings, cover and leave to marinate for a couple of hours.

Preheat the oven to 220C/gasmark 7. Place an ovenproof dish, big enough to hold the chops, in the oven to heat up. Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan over a fairly high heat.

Add the chops and brown on one side for just a minute, then on the other, seasoning them with salt and pepper as they brown. Remove from the pan with tongs and arrange in the preheated dish. Add the sprigs of thyme from the marinade, tucking them underneath the chops so that they don't burn.

Return the frying pan to the heat, add a wine glass full of water and the juice of half the lemon and use the liquid to deglaze the pan, scraping up any bits of caramelised meat. Let the liquid bubble until reduced by half, then tip over the chops. Season well.

Put in the oven and roast for 15-20 minutes, or until the meat is cooked through and the thinner, fattier ends are lovely and crisp. Remove the chops from the pan and keep warm.

Taste the pan juices and, if you'd like to intensify the flavour, boil them down a little. When the flavour is to your liking, add the capers and a little double cream. Bring to the boil again, then pour over the chops and serve. Use lemon zest or juice to set off the flavour of organic veal.

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