European Veal: Transparency is Everything

Dutch veal calves ( Maureen Hanson )

It is likely that no other sector of animal agriculture has faced as much consumer scrutiny as the veal industry. 

But while U.S. veal production has steadily declined over the past several decades, the European veal industry is thriving. How is this possible, in a consumer climate that is arguably even more critical of animal agriculture than that of the U.S.? 

It starts with quality production practices and a commitment to animal welfare and food safety, followed by absolute transparency with customers and end consumers, according to Maurice Aalbers, Marketing and Communication Manager for the VanDrie Group, the largest veal production company in the world. 

Based in the Netherlands, the VanDrie Group supplies veal to more than 60 countries worldwide. The company acquires its calves from European dairy farms, then controls every other aspect of the production chain, including feed and milk replacer production; rearing animals with the help of contract growers; and harvesting, processing and marketing the veal. 

At each step, Aalbers said they are committed to responding to the preferences of customers and end consumers. Their success also depends on open communication and the dispelling of a number of long-standing myths related to veal production. Among them:

Myth #1: Veal is harvested from young calves.

 Very little of the veal consumed worldwide today is from newborn calves. In Europe and North America, the standard growing time is about 24-28 weeks.  The VanDrie Group raises animals in group housing (6-8 calves) to 27 weeks of age, with a target weight of a hefty 240 kg, or about 500 pounds.  The lifetime of a veal animal actually is on the more lengthy side of all meat production – much longer than poultry or lamb, and about the same as pork.

Myth #2: Veal animals are raised in cruel conditions.

For more than 20 years, regulations throughout the EU have mandated that veal calves are raised in group housing, with a minimum resting space of 1.8 square meters per calf. Today’s veal barns are pleasant, clean and well-ventilated, with excellent lighting and both mechanical and natural ventilation. Calves are housed on slatted floors in either small-group pens, or larger pens similar to those in U.S. autofeeder barns. Many barns are equipped with artificial teats to satisfy nursing instincts, as well as body brushes and skippyballs for comfort and play. In addition, veal calves are neither castrated nor dehorned. While both procedures can be done humanely, the fact that they are avoided entirely erases another consumer concern.

Myth #3: Veal calves are deprived nutritionally. 

A steady diet of milk throughout the animal’s lifetime produces the tender, pale, flavorful meat that is the hallmark of high-quality veal. Today, that diet is carefully formulated using high-quality milk replacer powder that consistently meets the nutritional needs of every animal. Dutch regulations also require that animals have access to dry feed at all times. This ration of chopped straw combined with cereal-grain-based “muesli” satisfies calves’ natural instinct to chew, and promotes rumination. 

Myth #4: Veal production overuses drugs. 

A commitment to high-quality standards for on-farm colostrum administration, transportation, nutrition and housing means fewer animals get sick. Antibiotic use in Dutch veal production has been cut by more than half over approximately the past decade. When treatment is needed, it is done only under the prescription of a licensed veterinarian. Also, similar to the U.S., antibiotics used in human medicine are not approved for growth promotion or feed efficiency in animals in the EU. Extensive, third-party oversight also ensures ongoing product safety, as does the VanDrie Group’s internal quality control system called Safety Guard®. 

The VanDrie Group works diligently to communicate these positive aspects of veal production to both supply chain customers and the end consumer. Their integrated structure allows for 100% traceability of every piece of meat they sell. Via an ear tag and barcode system, documentation is available on each animal, noting its farm of origin, the feed ingredients it consumed, any medical treatment it received, and even personal details about the farmer who raised the animal. This information is available via a password-protected site for all supply chain customers. For VanDrie’s branded veal products, sold under the label “Peter’s Farm,” even the end consumer can look it up via a QR code on the product, as shown here.

That transparency is taken a step further, with live webcams in Peter’s Farm veal barns that consumers can access online. Throughout the day, they can view the animals firsthand as they eat, rest and play. The company also hosts annual “Open Door Days,” during which the public is invited to visit Peter’s Farm veal barns in person.  Graphics and written communication are developed with the end consumer in mind, like this infograph that illustrates the company’s structure. The Peters Farm App, which contains production information as well as veal recipes, is available via Google Play and the Apple App Store.

“We are proud of the safe, consistent, highly nutritious product we supply to the world,” noted Aalbers. “But in today’s marketplace, producing a high-quality product is just the beginning. We also need to be completely transparent in the way we produce it, and the care we take in every step of the process.”