Eating veal can protect animal welfare and food sustainability

Posted on October 09, 2019 by David Barrett And Jude Capper

In the UK, we have a long tradition of milk production, with dairy products being purchased by 99% of households each week. Biologically, milk is produced by cows after they have produced a calf and therefore they have to calve approximately once per year. Not all of these calves are needed in the milking herd and making efficient use of the surplus calves has been a challenge for the dairy industry for decades, but it’s an issue that we can all help to resolve.

In the early 1980s, there were over 3.2 million dairy cows in the UK and we exported approximately 500,000 male dairy calves per annum to continental Europe, many of which were reared for veal in systems that are now banned in the UK. The media message at that time was simple: “Don’t buy or eat veal - it’s not good for animal welfare". The ability of media messages to influence consumer purchase behaviours and beliefs has not changed – if anything, the internet and social media has meant that messages gain traction even faster nowadays, so, what has changed and how can eating veal possibly be a good thing, 40 years later?

Improved breeding

Breeding cows that are healthier and more efficient over past decades has meant we now need fewer total cattle to maintain the milk supply – although UK milk production decreased from 15.4 billion litres in 1980 to a predicted 12.6 billion litres in 2019/20 (an 18% decrease), that milk is produced from ~1.9 million dairy cows – a 40.6% decrease, primarily due to improved milk yield per cow. This has many positive effects on dairy industry sustainability, including the birth of fewer calves. New reproductive technologies that allow us to sort and select sperm according to whether it carries an X- or Y-chromosome means we can often predict the sex of a calf before it is born, yet it’s estimated that around 95,000 surplus male dairy calves are still born each year, although this number is falling.

Calf welfare

Animal health and welfare is a key concern for many consumers – calf welfare must not only be protected, but the practice of calves being humanely killed on farm in response to low market prices is wasteful, socially unacceptable and, to some, unethical. BVA drew attention to the issue of surplus male production animals in a joint position statement with the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA), Goat Veterinary Society, and the British Veterinary Poultry Association launched on 9 October 2019 and rightly called for the adoption of a ‘3R’ (reduce, replace and refine) approach to the problem. As mentioned above, the numbers of male dairy calves born has been reduced, and the numbers exported are now negligible. Nevertheless, a considerable number of calves are still available to be reared for meat. Their economic value is dependent on a sustainable and resilient veal market, hence our claim that, eating veal can protect animal welfare and food sustainability. Of course, there is a significant caveat, in that these animals must be reared in high welfare schemes and not exported (see the BVA’s #ChooseAssured campaign). Modern high welfare veal systems in the UK rear calves in groups (rather than individual pens), feed nutritious diets that contain both concentrates and forage, and therefore produce veal that has a pink (rosé) colour. 

A sustainable solution

In these times of heightened environmental awareness, the dairy and meat industries must strive for the most efficient use of resources to improve sustainability, which means using every product from dairy farming, including calves that can be reared for meat. This is very much in line with the BVA’s position on sustainable animal agriculture

The UK produces high quality, welfare-friendly, quality assured veal which improves both dairy and meat industry sustainability. The challenge is for everybody to work together to increase demand for UK veal, and to recognise that today’s product is very different to that of 40 years ago. Now is the time to ask your butcher, supermarket or restaurateur for quality assured home-produced veal and help ensure that it is enjoyed alongside our great dairy products.

Common concerns about eating veal

Are veal calves still confined in small crates unable to move around?

No veal crates have been banned for over a decade - calves are now kept in group pens that allow them to move freely and to interact with other calves.

Are the calves fed a diet that deprives them of iron to make their meat white?

No, modern veal systems ensure calves are provided with enough iron in their diets. This results in pink not white meat.

How can buying and eating veal possibly help animal welfare?

Providing a viable market for meat from male dairy calves in the form of veal increases their value and means farmers can afford to rear and care for them.

Aren’t animal welfare groups campaigning to stop us eating veal?

No. On the contrary, groups such as Compassion in World Farming are advocating buying British veal and beef from cattle born in dairy herds (dairy beef).


Find out more

Get in touch with BCVA for more information about cattle.

For more on surplus male production animals, contact the BVA policy team

David Barrett and Jude Capper

Written by David Barrett and Jude Capper

BCVA President and Livestock Sustainability Consultancy

Professor David Barrett has worked in livestock agriculture since the 1970s growing up on dairy farms in South West England. He is a RCVS Recognised Specialist in Cattle Health and Production and European Veterinary Specialist in Bovine Health Management as well as a Fellow of the RCVS.  He has a wide-ranging interest in cattle health and production including an active research portfolio investigating medicine usage and antibiotic resistance in cattle.

Dr Jude Capper's research focuses on modelling the sustainability of livestock production systems, specifically dairy and beef, including quantifying changes made by improving productivity or adopting differing management practices. She is also currently working on projects relating to the impacts of medicines use on UK beef farms and the national and global impacts of livestock health and welfare on system sustainability.