sympathy for the veal industry

WBUR Boston produced an interesting short piece on free range veal this week, covering a business venture in New England that helps small farms become profitable by raising free-range, pastured meats.

Of course it's nice to hear about local Boston restaurants buying the naturally-raised veal, and hearing from customers who have been avoiding conventionally farmed veal. But apparently, the veal industry is getting nervous at this potential competition. A spokesperson for the American Veal Association claims that people might get confused as to what actually constitutes "veal" (apparently, veal specifically refers to the male calves of dairy cows fed a milk diet), and wants the USDA to label only the conventional product as "veal."

On further investigation, it turns out that the AVA actually has a website devoted to putting a positive spin on veal farming, a practice which has attracted special vehemence from animal rights activists. I know veal was the first food I ever stopped eating for ethical reasons, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person those campaigns reached. The industry's propaganda arm, The Veal Farm, appears devoted to dispelling the dark image veal has acquired over the years. The faq assures consumers that veal calves are fed a nutritionally balanced diet, live in well-lighted barns, and are actually separated from one another to promote their health.

Still, there are some notable gaps in this rosy portrait -- calves spend their short lives indoors, separated from their mothers (so the cows can get back to pumping out milk) and stand in slotted stalls, crapping themselves. The faq notes that calves are only given "'therapeutic' doses of antibiotics (levels high enough to treat illness)" when necessary, but remains mum on whether or not they are also given low-level doses as a matter of course. Both the Veal Farm website and the AVA's official one primarily emphasize the scientific healthiness of the animals, the quality of veal as a food product, and of course, how to best make money as a veal producer.

I can understand the industry's jitters over the promotion of humanely raised veal, especially given the bad rap of their own product. But it sounds like they'd rather blame the small farms that have opted for sustainable methods, rather than consider why some consumers might prefer the free-range version. Maybe it's time for the veal industry to reconsider its approach to meat production, rather than run to the USDA for protection.

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