Welfare issues for EU veal calves
Although the veal crate was banned across the EU in January 2007, Compassion has welfare concerns about standard EU veal production.
Most of the veal produced on the continent is ‘white veal’: meat from calves aged eight months or less, fed a low-iron milk based diet. This diet is designed to keep their flesh pale in colour.
These calves are reared in groups from when they are around eight weeks old. The size of the groups range from a few calves up to 80, and minimum space allowances per calf are laid down by law.
However, calves need enough space to lie down and stand up, groom themselves, move around, explore and interact socially. Space allowances for older calves in the EU are only 60% of the legal minimum required in the UK.
The calves are typically housed on wooden slats and there is no requirement for bedding material after the first two weeks. Fully slatted floors can make standing and lying down extremely uncomfortable for calves. They can cause foot injuries and lameness.
By law, their diet must include a daily minimum of fibrous feed from the age of two weeks in order to enable the calf’s rumen – an important part of their digestive system – to develop normally, and the diet must provide a minimum amount of iron.
Again, evidence shows that the EU minimum iron requirement may be too low for full health and robustness. Anaemia damages the immune system and causes calves to be weak, lethargic and probably feel unwell.
Additionally the iron levels in calves’ blood are usually not monitored closely enough and it is likely that some individual calves have blood iron well below the minimum level required by law.
Meat from calves slaughtered when they are between eight and 12 months old, is usually called ‘rosé’ veal. In the UK, this meat is sold as beef and a number of EU countries label this as ‘young beef’.
Calves reared for rosé veal are generally fed a more normal diet without restriction of iron intake. Although these calves have a healthier diet, they may still be reared in low welfare systems. For example, most of the rosé veal produced in the Netherlands is from calves reared in barren systems without bedding.
Some rosé veal is produced in high welfare systems. For example, a significant proportion of rosé veal produced in France is from the suckler herd.
Every year, almost one million calves are transported on very long journeys across Europe, although evidence shows that young calves are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of handling and transport. They are unable to regulate their body temperature to cope with the extremes of heat and cold during long journeys.
They often suffer bruising and weight loss as a result of the discomfort of transportation and lack of space and comfortable bedding.
The longer the distance the greater the stress; many calves become ill or die after they arrive at the rearing farms.
Banned within the EU, narrow veal crates are still used in the US and many other countries. These make it impossible for calves to turn around and many are tied by the neck.
In order to keep their flesh pale and tender, the calves kept in crates are fed on an unhealthy diet of milk or milk replacer, usually without any solid food. Calves can become seriously anaemic due to the lack of iron and their rumen does not develop properly due to the lack of solid and fibrous food.
Public pressure to end the use of veal crates on animal welfare grounds has resulted in some major US veal producers starting to phase out veal crates and some US states have voted to make them illegal.
Veal does not have to be a cruel meal; there are alternative production systems that provide higher welfare for veal calves.