Welfare and modern veal production

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Speaking at the 2011, American Meat Institute Animal Care & Handling Conference in Kansas City, Mo., the American Veal Association’s Drew Vermeire, PhD, PAS, Dipl. ACAN, said many consumers don’t know the difference between a dairy calf and a veal calf. On one hand, a veal calf is a dairy calf, but a dairy calf is not always a veal calf.

“A veal calf is not what most people think,” Vermeire said. He explained that the modern veal industry involves 400,000 baby dairy bull calves and 535 million pounds of whey solids, from 9.5 billion pounds of milk. “Whey solids used to be thrown out from cheese processing,” he explained. “Calves can digest whey and it is an excellent source of nutrition.”

Vermeire further explained that the veal industry is the number one single source customer for whey solids. “We use 300 million pounds of milk replacer for the veal industry, all in 50-lb bags. Calves are fed with the best care. They are housed in climate-controlled housing with a lot of individual attention and care.”

Vermeire says in modern systems dividers are placed between calves because the first few weeks they are susceptible to disease, but the industry is moving then to group housing. “Veal calves get hands-on individual care,” he stressed. “They have exceptional management supervision and nutritionists and consultants on the farm every week. 

Vermeire says the Veal Quality Assurance program includes:

  • A Valid Veterinarian-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR)
  • Is a model program for other species
  • Encompasses farmers and industry
  • On-going education and re-certification
  • Fits into packer HACCP programs
  • Good management practices
  • Biosecurity

Veal production isn’t without its challenges, however. Vermeire says economics play a big role in production. Feed ingredients are at near record high prices, and carcass prices are below production costs. There are big swings in whey and it can cost $2,000/ton for feed.” He said the industry will continue to use more plant-based ingredients such as wheat protein, soy protein, extruded flour, etc. in milk replacers. “We will continue to improve production methods to lower the cost of production, and we’ll likely see more consolidation to improve industry-wide efficiency.”

The American Veal Association has a resolution to address consumer preferences and will move to transition all veal operations to group housing on an industry-wide basis by 2017. “It’s a work in progress,” Vermeire said. “Different skill sets are needed. Not all calves like to be in groups. There can be bullying behavior from young bulls as they get bigger – they are 500-lb calves when they go to slaughter. In pens there can be biting tails, sucking on each other, riding and lameness issues.”

It’s also expensive to make the transition because there is more variation in group-penned calves. “Decisions need to be science-based rather than emotion-based,” Vermeire said. “The veal industry will meet the challenge that consumers want of tether-free veal. We are ahead of schedule with the transition to group housing.”

“Bob” veal is not “real veal”
There have been some reports about veal calves being tested positive for antibiotic residue, but Vermeire wants to clarify that that tends to be the case of a “bob” dairy calves sold to slaughter, and not a calf from a veal operation. “They are veal in name only,” he explained. “When a dairyman takes a bob calf to the sale barn with a residue, the veal industry gets a black eye. Bob calves should be classified as dairy calves, not veal.”

Vermeire went on to explain that veal has an excellent safety record with a lot of veterinary oversight, and veal has a very low rate of positive residues even with a disproportionately large amount of testing compared to other types of meat.

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