About calves reared for veal

Face Of Veal Calf

Veal production is closely linked to the dairy industry, as male calves can’t be used for milk production.

Veal is the meat from calves, mostly pure-bred male dairy calves.

In many countries, including the UK, veal production is closely linked to the dairy industry; male dairy calves cannot produce milk and are often considered unsuitable for beef production.

Within the EU, thousands of calves are transported on long journeys to veal farms in countries such as the Netherlands from countries as far away as Poland and Ireland.

Veal production on the continent

Although not common in the UK, veal farms are widespread on the continent. Around six million calves are reared for veal within the EU every year. The biggest EU producers are France (over 1.4 million calves), the Netherlands (1.5 million calves) and Italy (almost 800,000 calves).

Although the veal crate was banned across the EU in January 2007, Compassion is concerned about the welfare issues surrounding standard EU veal production.

Veal production in the UK

When produced under the best conditions, veal does not need to be a cruel meal and there are several higher welfare alternatives.

Calves reared to UK standard are provided with bedding and younger calves receive double the amount of fibrous food compared to continental veal calves. Older UK calves have greater space allowance than stipulated in EU law. Their diet must provide a minimum amount of iron equal to the EU minimum.

Unfortunately, very few calves are reared for veal in Great Britain due to low demand for this meat. Although many are reared for beef, a large number are killed shortly after birth or may be exported to the continent.

Due to co-operation between Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA and the industry through the Calf Stakeholder Forum, more male dairy calves are now reared humanely for beef and the number of calves being shot at birth has greatly decreased. 

There is more work to do – tens of thousands are still shot every year (over 50,000 in 2013) and thousands are exported to the continent (around 6,700 in 2015), mostly from Northern Ireland.*

Although the veal crate was banned across the EU in January 2007, Compassion has welfare concerns about standard EU veal production.

Welfare issues for veal calves

Good animal welfare depends on three components:

  • Physical well-being
  • Mental well-being
  • Natural living.

In intensive veal farms, all three of these are compromised by periods of confinement in veal crates or barren environments, malnutrition and distress and long-term social development problems caused by early separation from their mothers. Young calves are also often subjected to long distance journeys – which can last days – for fattening and slaughter.

Early separation

Naturally, calves suckle their mothers for up to a year, and maintain a strong bond with her for several years. However in commercial dairy farming, nearly all calves are taken away from their mother within hours of birth. This causes severe distress to both the cow and the calf, and has long-term effects on the calf’s physical and social development.

White veal

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.

Housing

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.

Intensive veal conditions - small group, housed on slatted floor

Since the ban on veal crates was introduced in January 2007, calves up to eight weeks old may be kept in individual pens, where they can turn around and be in contact with other calves. After this, they are reared in groups of up to 80 calves, often in sheds with a wooden slatted floor.

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.

Diet

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.

Rosé veal

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 higher welfare systems. For example, a significant proportion of rosé veal produced in France is from the suckler herd.

Transport

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.

Crates

Veal calf, tied neck

Traditional veal crate, now banned in EU.

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.

Higher welfare alternatives for calves

Extensive outdoor or indoor production

In these systems, calves are reared in small groups in straw-bedded barns. They are provided with adequate space allowance per calf and may have access to the outdoors. They are fed a normal diet for growing calves, without restriction of iron intake and solid food.

In the best systems, such as many organic systems, the calves are able to suckle from an older cow retired from the dairy herd. These systems provide greater comfort, reduced risk of injury and better opportunities for natural behaviour, social interaction and exercise.

Suckler herds

In this system, calves are reared with their mothers in the suckler herd and may be weaned before slaughter. This system is capable of providing the highest level of welfare for calves reared for veal as they are neither separated from their mother nor transported to rearing farms.

Calves reared in suckler herds have the health and psychological benefits of suckling from their mother, a normal diet and increased opportunities for natural behaviour, social interaction and exercise.

Veal from suckler herds

Organic veal calves with nurse cows and straw bedding.

RSPCA’s Freedom Food™

Calves reared to Freedom Food standards are group housed in deep straw-bedded barns. They have greater space allowance and their diet must prevent anaemia and any mineral or vitamin deficiency. They receive more iron than minimum UK legal requirements and unweaned calves must have unlimited access to grass or a minimum amount of fibrous feed.

UK standard

Calves reared to UK standard are provided with bedding and younger calves receive double the amount of fibrous food compared to continental veal calves. Older UK calves have greater space allowance than stipulated in EU law. Their diet must provide a minimum amount of iron equal to the EU minimum.


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