The kinder side of veal
Eating veal -- or not eating it, to be more accurate -- is one thing many carnivores and vegetarians can agree on. For most, the methods used to produce tender, milky-colored meat aren't a worthwhile trade-off. But what if eating veal were no less ethical than eating pork, chicken or lamb? What if, under the right circumstances, eating veal were actually more ethical than shunning it?
This is not that veal: the mostly flavorless meat from calves raised in crates so small they can't turn around. Humanely raised veal -- sometimes called pasture-raised, sometimes called rose veal because of its color -- comes from calves that drank their mother's milk and ate pasture grass. Its producers argue that if male calves, an otherwise useless byproduct of the dairy industry, are not ethically raised for meat, they are sold to less-humane veal producers or destroyed.
The new veal is delicate in taste compared with beef and, because the animals graze on pasture, is leaner than veal from calves raised in crates. But it is fast winning fans. It's on sale at several local farmers markets (arrive early to secure the scaloppine) and served at a growing number of area restaurants including Charlie Palmer Steak, Marcel's, Palena, Restaurant Eve and, starting this week, Proof. Demand is growing so quickly that even industrial producers are jumping into the market. In 2008, Strauss Brands, one of the country's largest producers, began selling pasture-raised veal. Already, its trademarked Free Raised meat makes up about 20 percent of veal sales.
Producers make their case by methodically tackling what they see as myths about how calves must be raised. For example, one common consumer complaint is that the animals are killed so young. But veal calves are in fact older than chickens, turkeys and pigs and about the same age as lambs when they are slaughtered. The so-called traditional way of raising calves, where the animals are kept in small crates and fed industrial "milk replacement," is in fact a post-World War II invention; farmers moved calves indoors to save time and space. They trumpeted the glory of milk-colored meat to justify feeding the animals dried skim milk, which was subsidized by the government, and whey, another byproduct of the dairy industry.
Most important, dairy cows must give birth to provide milk. Their male calves are unsuitable for beef production and too costly to keep on the farm. "It's a resource that needs to be utilized," said Nancy Pritchard, who raises calves at Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Va. Or to put it more bluntly, as producer Sandy Miller of Painted Hand Farm in Newburg, Pa., does: If you consume dairy, you should eat veal.
The renaissance of humanely raised veal is driven in part by small farmers who embrace old-fashioned animal husbandry and see veal as an extra revenue stream. But it also has been spurred by the success of animal rights campaigns and the resulting collapse in demand for veal. In 1944, Americans ate 8.6 pounds of veal per person annually, according to Agriculture Department figures. In 2004, the latest year for which data are available, consumption had fallen to less than half a pound. It hasn't topped one pound per person since 1988.
"In the 1960s, no one thought they were doing anything wrong. It was the way the world was evolving," said Randy Strauss, co-owner of Franklin, Wis.-based Strauss Brands. "When the animal welfare movement came along, we as an industry challenged ourselves. But no one could, for lack of better expression, think outside the box." An increase in the price of whey -- it became a popular ingredient in health food drinks -- was another factor that encouraged a new vision.
In 2001, Strauss began investigating ways of raising veal more humanely. The best turned out to be old-fashioned methods. The calves that are used for Strauss's free-raised veal, a French breed named Limousin, are given no hormones or antibiotics. The animals are not raised in confinement and live their whole lives with their mothers on open pasture. The meat is classified as pasture-raised by the USDA.
Strauss Brands also raises Holstein calves for veal that is not sold as Free Raised. As of December 2008, though, those calves are no longer confined in crates but are "group-raised" in a barn with six to eight other calves. Other large veal producers are also changing their practices. In May 2007, the American Veal Association passed a resolution committing to move all animals to group housing by 2017. At the time, less than 5 percent of veal calves were being raised that way. Two years later, 35 percent were being raised in groups.
Randy Strauss, whose company sells to such Washington restaurants as Tosca and Posto, says he is open to allowing group-raised calves to spend time outdoors. But he worries that the market is not ready for the rosy, more flavorful meat that would result. The industry spent years trying to convince consumers that veal was another white, bland meat. "Veal from an authentic cow-calf relationship is pinker," Strauss said. "But the richer, redder color is your assurance that it's humane and compassionate."
The concept of humanely raised veal is new in the United States. But the trend is well-established in Britain, which banned animal crate systems in 1990. In 2006, celebrity chefs including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall championed a Good Veal campaign, which argued that eating humanely raised British veal prevented the calves from being either shipped to continental Europe, where animal-welfare standards can be less strict, or killed shortly after birth. Logic and a little bit of chauvinism spurred sales: The week after "The F Word," chef Gordon Ramsay's popular television program, aired an episode about British veal, sales at grocer Waitrose jumped 45 percent, according to a British newspaper. Retailer Marks & Spencer banned imported white veal in 2007. The next summer, grocery behemoth Tesco launched its own brand of British veal.
American animal rights campaigners, such as those at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose campaigns in the 1980s helped curb Americans' appetite for veal, are not convinced. "People who think 'rose veal' is 'humane' are seeing the cruel veal industry through rose-colored glasses," Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's founder, said in an e-mail. Cows form strong maternal bonds with their calves, and the frightening transport and slaughter of animals remains unchanged, she said.
Persuading vegetarians will never be easy, of course. But some meat eaters, and a lot of chefs, find the case compelling. "There isn't a farm on the planet that has the money to keep all the male offspring," said Cathal Armstrong, executive chef of Restaurant Eve and the Majestic Cafe, both of which serve humanely raised veal from Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville. Armstrong buys and uses the whole animal: Chops and medallions are sold in Eve's tasting room, the head and liver are made into pâtés, less tender cuts are made into meatballs. "It's a more responsible way for everybody, including the animal," Armstrong said.
There is no standard label for humanely raised veal. Some small farmers, such as Painted Hand's Miller, are following the Europeans and calling their meat "rose veal," though according to USDA definitions, rose veal could be fed milk replacement and grain. Smith Meadows calls it "free-range." At Palena, chef-owner Frank Ruta calls his veal breast (braised with paprika and piquillo pepper) "humanely raised," while at Charlie Palmer Steak, chef Matt Hill prefers "grass-fed." Whole Foods stores label their meat, which comes from Virginia, "local pasture-raised."
Whatever you call it, cooking this kind of veal requires some care. Because the animal eats grass and is permitted to roam, the meat is lean and can dry out easily, chefs say. The chops and loin can be roasted; the shoulder and breast, as well as the shank, from which the famous Italian dish osso buco is made, are best braised.
"I think it's really tasty," said Bart Vandaele, chef-owner of Belga Cafe on Capitol Hill, one of 16 chefs and restaurateurs who attended a tasting of Strauss veal last month. "Customers are more educated, and they want better food. This is the way food is going."