Veal: What is it, what animal does it come from, and how is it made?
Dairy cows must be impregnated to produce milk, but what happens to their offspring? Most of those who are surplus to the process of industrial milk production are taken away from their mothers, cruelly left to die or slaughtered and consumed as veal.
What is veal?
Veal is a byproduct of the modern, industrialized dairy industry. Every year hundreds of thousands of calves are born to dairy cows. Though about three-quarters of the female calves will be raised to replace their mothers, the remaining quarter and virtually all of the male calves — who are not capable of producing milk and are thus useless to the dairy industry — are sold to veal farms. These cows are slaughtered in the first few months to a year of life and turned into veal.
What animal does veal come from?
Veal comes from young cattle. Sometimes calves who are merely days or hours old are sold to be butchered and turned into food products marketed as veal. There are a variety of different types of veal, based on the type of feed given to the calf and the age of the calf at the time of slaughter.
About 15% of calves who are slaughtered for veal are turned into bob veal. Bob veal comprises those calves who are slaughtered from birth — sometimes with their umbilical cord still attached to their bodies — up to three weeks of age. The most common use for bob veal is in processed meats such as hot dogs or sandwich meat.
Formula-fed veal, also known as “milk veal,” is made from those calves that are fed a milk replacement formula. For the 18 to 20 weeks that they are alive they consume only the formula, a nutritionally incomplete diet for a growing calf. To control the diarrhea and gastrointestinal upset caused by the poor nutrition, the formula is often laced with antibiotics. Many of these calves develop anemia. They are also traditionally confined and prevented from moving to stop their muscles developing and to preserve the white meat so prized by some consumers. As a result, they are sometimes unable to stand or move around when it comes time for them to be shipped to the slaughterhouse.
Non-formula-fed veal, or “free raised veal,” makes up about 20% of the veal found on US market, for example. These calves are allowed to stay with their mothers, consuming their milk and the antibodies it contains, allowing them to develop a stronger immune system than calves raised in other ways. They are taken from their mothers and slaughtered at about 24 weeks of age.
There are different ways of defining veal around the world, such as by a cow’s weight, but generally a slaughtered cow is considered veal for the first year of its life. After that, a cow’s body is regarded as beef. Some cattle are moved to a finishing facility and slaughtered shortly after reaching adulthood, instead of spending further time on pasture before being moved to the finishing facility and slaughterhouse.
How is veal made?
Veal is made by slaughtering a baby cow, or calf. Because calves are so young when they are slaughtered and processed into veal, they cannot be stunned using the blunt force trauma used on their parents and other older cattle. This is because their skulls are too hard to achieve the immediate unconsciousness that is the desired goal in older cattle. Instead calves are most commonly electrically stunned prior to slaughter.
Separated at birth
The majority of calves slaughtered to be used as veal are the result of the industrial dairy industry. Because cows must become pregnant to produce milk, they are repeatedly bred year after year so their milk can be bottled and sold. These breedings result in calves. About three-quarters of the female calves will be raised to replace their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers when their bodies give out, and the last quarter of female calves and virtually all the male calves will be slaughtered to be turned into veal. These calves are separated from their mothers almost immediately so that the milk that was intended for them can be bottled and sold.
Calves are likely to endure transportation at least twice in their short lives. The first trip takes them from where they are born to an auction, and then to the facility at which they will be raised. The second is from that facility to the slaughterhouse, on their last day alive. These instances of transport are stressful for the calves, who have been recorded as developing soft stool, reducing their rumination, lying down more, and excessively defecating and urinating, which are all signs of stress in calves. Research suggests the journey is stressful for calves regardless of the length of time spent in transport, because of the effect of loading and unloading.
As one might expect, calves suffer profusely when it comes time for them to be slaughtered. Due to the stresses of transport, many calves arrive weak and unable to rise from the ground to walk into the slaughterhouse themselves. Instead they are given electric shocks. Once they have been forced into the slaughterhouse they are most frequently stunned using electricity, a process that is less effective on cows than on sheep and pigs—some calves regain consciousness in as short as 21 seconds and have been observed reviving during the bleeding process, which is a horrendous violation of animal welfare.
Is veal cruel?
Veal is just a baby cow
Ultimately, veal is the result of a baby cow being brutally slaughtered. These calves had the capacity to form strong bonds with their mothers, especially if allowed the opportunity to suckle for just a few days. Instead they are deliberately separated from them within the first hours or even minutes after birth.
In order to maximize the value of their meat, calves often spend their time in small enclosures or hutches. This leaves them unable to fully express themselves or use their bodies to their full potential. When combined with a nutritionally incomplete diet of milk replacer, restricting their activity means that the baby cows will have white meat, the most desirable type of veal meat.
Calves being raised for veal who are separated from their mothers at a young age and raised on a factory farm can develop abnormal suckling behaviors indicative of poor welfare and mental suffering. These behaviors include tongue rolling, manipulating a penmate (in group housing situations), and (most commonly) manipulating the substrate of their pen.
Abnormal gut development
White veal meat is the most desirable type of veal for buyers. To achieve this, farmers will feed their calves a nutritionally incomplete diet lacking in iron and fiber that leads to ulcers and abnormal gut development. In order for the rumen of a calf to properly develop, dry feed is necessary. However, veal calves are often only offered liquid milk replacers. This diet results in anemia and suffering for the calf and white meat for the farmer and consumer.
In the US there are 120 FDA-approved drugs for veal calves. Veal farmers commonly use antibiotics to prevent disease, and this practice has elicited controversy. Several drugs previously used in the veal industry have been banned because they were still present in slaughtered meat and posed a potential health risk. Illegal use of these drugs continues and has resulted in fines and warnings for veal farmers. Some drugs, such as doxycycline, which has been strongly linked with overdoses and poisoning of calves, have increased in usage according to a 2019 study. Flunixin meglumine, an anti-inflammatory agent, has been found in heightened levels in veal intended for human consumption.
Increased disease susceptibility
The disease susceptibility of calves being raised for veal is increased thanks to a number of factors. Firstly, anemic calves are at an increased risk of developing diseases. Because veal meat is more desirable when calves are fed a diet that leads to anemia, many calves suffer from the condition. Further, calves raised for veal on milk replacer do not have access to the antibodies that they would have normally received form their mothers’ milk. Housing systems can also contribute to an increase in disease susceptibility. In those systems in which calves are tied and unable to groom themselves as they normally would, disease is able to take hold.
Violence in the industrial farming industry is nothing new and, unfortunately, calves are not exempt from the cruelty experienced by animals across the industry. This violence is not limited to that inherent in their slaughter, but can also come from staff and farmers who are burnt out from killing and processing hundreds of animals a day. At packing plants, workers have been recorded dragging, kicking, and shocking calves who were downed and unable to stand on their own.
Why should you not eat veal?
Ultimately, veal is a baby cow. Calves display unique personalities and characteristics. Some are more adventurous while others prefer to stay back and hide. Each calf also forms strong bonds with their mother and deserves to stay with her through a natural weaning process. Consuming veal contributes to the demand that these calves' lives be taken and that they be turned into meat instead of being able to get to know their mother and explore the world around them.
Veal is a byproduct of the industrialized dairy industry. In the course of veal production, calves suffer immensely. After being removed from their mothers they are fed a diet that is unable to meet their nutritional needs, resulting in anemia and disease susceptibility. After just a few short weeks or months of life, they are transported to slaughterhouses where they endure additional suffering as their bodies are processed into veal. It doesn’t have to be this way. Choosing to leave veal and dairy out of your plate helps to ensure you are not contributing to this horrendous industry. There has never been a better time to adopt a plant-based diet and to call for an end to this needless suffering.