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To what extent does food preference justify animal suffering?

Updated: Feb 26

The case of calves reared for veal within the EU



Welcome to our blog! Today will discuss the dairy industry and its use of male calves.

In 2019, 4.4 Million calves were slaughtered in the European Union to produce veal, representing 14% of calves born yearly in the EU-27; other 400.000 claves were slaughtered for rosé veal.

How it starts

Picture a newborn calf; still bloodied and shocked, he breathes his first little breath and finds the familiarity of his mother’s scent mingled in all the newness of this world. Both tired and relieved from their mutual ordeal, he blinkingly stumbles closer to the comforting safety of her radiating warmth. Less than 24 hours later, despite his cries and her pleas, he is in a sterile, cold, individual cell (Figure 1) [1]. Some other calves, born before or after, are all there, they can touch and smell, but the bars constrain any other activity [2]. After eight weeks, their life (6 to 12 months) will be spent in either too small or crowded social stalls [3]. The diet for the entirety of this time will consist mainly of milk replacement to keep the future meat tender [4]. They will be slaughtered for white or rosé veal when the time comes. Calves do not have a purpose; they are a by-product of the dairy industry, which will be culled once their maximum profitability potential is reached [5]. The European Union represents the leading player in this global industry of pain and suffering [6].



What is White or Rose Veal? And where does it come from?

Veal is meat derived from claves slaughtered under the age of twelve months. Commission Regulation (EC) No 566/2008 defined two different veal categories which are applicable in Europe:


Class V derives from calves slaughtered at eight months or under [7], e.g., veal or white veal. The claves in this category are fed a milk-based diet, with the addition of some low-iron roughage [8], resulting in pale-coloured tender meat preferred by consumers [2]. If not controlled, this kind of nutrition can cause anaemia and hormonal disorders in the calves [2].

Class Z is meat derived from calves killed older than eight months and before twelve months [7], e.g., rosé veal [6]. These calves have a more developed rumen and muscle structure and are fed more fibre and solid [9].


In 2019, 4.4 Mio calves were slaughtered in the European Union to produce veal, representing 14% of calves born yearly in the EU-27; other 400.000 claves were slaughtered for rosé veal [6]. Therefore, we can conclude that in the veal industry, only about 8% of calves are farmed for rosé veal. The leading countries in this market are The Netherlands (36%), France (28%), Italy (13%), Belgium (9%) and Germany (7%) [6].



Iron deficiency and hormonal imbalances

Calves, farmed for (white) veal production, endure a restricted iron intake throughout the entire fattening period [2]. Considering these systems do not allow regular grazing and other activities are compromised, anaemia often appears to indicate the poor welfare of the calves (Figure 2) [2]. Therefore, the diets offered to the animals should show haemoglobin concentrations of at least 6.0 mmol l-1 in the blood test throughout the entire life of the calves [10]. To elude severe damage to the animals’ immune system functions and poor welfare, calves should not have a blood haemoglobin concentration lower than 4.5 mmol l-1. Usually, this is accomplished by controlling and correcting the diet to have the right concentration of iron [2]. When the haemoglobin concentration is below 4,5 mmol l-1, veal calves present some adaptations to this deficiency. These include elevated heart rate, elevated urinary noradrenaline (e.g., hormonal imbalances) and altered reactivity of the HPA axis (i.e., the pathways that connect the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands; it plays an essential role in the body’s response to stress) which will likely decrease the ability of the calves to cope with stress [10].



Concluding thoughts

The production of veal is strictly associated with the traditional production of dairy products [4]. The need to dispose of the “residual waste” (the male calves) from the dairy industry created a market for veal [11]. Unquestionably, keeping veal and dairy products out of the plate is the most direct and productive step to communicate the explicit desire to break this needless cycle of suffering.


Until the meat and dairy industries are entirely abolished, we can take other measures to reduce the animals' suffering. One such initiative is the development of genetic selection, allowing farmers to control the number of bull calves produced and avoid excess production [4]. Meanwhile, the welfare of calves can be upgraded across the EU by improving issues such as nutrition, housing (figure 3), transport, and social stress [2]. The latest regulations and directives of the European Union are the first example of change for this industry. However, fourteen years have passed, and while every measure for improving their welfare is an improvement [2], these calves and dams will continue their tragic cycle until we break it by keeping them and their products off our plates.





Reference list

1. Whalin, L., Weary, D. M., & von Keyserlingk, M. A. G. (2021). Understanding Behavioural Development of Calves in Natural Settings to Inform Calf Management. Animals, 11(8), 2446. Retrieved 10 October 2022 from https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11082446

2. Eurogroup for Animals. (2021, May). Welfare of calves kept for white and rosé veal production. Eurogroup for Animals. Retrieved 20 October 2022, from https://www.eurogroupforanimals.org/files/eurogroupforanimals/2021-05/2021_05_20_efa_pp_white%20and%20ros%C3%A9%20veal%20production.pdf

3. Marcé, C., Guatteo, R., Bareille, N., & Fourichon, C. (2010). Dairy calf housing systems across Europe and risk for calf infectious diseases. Animal, 4(9), 1588 1596.

4. American Veterinary Medical Association. (2008, October 13). Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry. Retrieved 21 October 2022, from https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/literature-reviews/welfare-implications-veal-calf-husbandry

5. Sans, P., & De Fontguyon, G. (2009). Veal calf industry economics. Le Centre Pour La Communication Scientifique Directe - HAL - Université De Nantes, 160. Retrieved from https://hal.inrae.fr/hal-02658908

6. Euroveal. (2021). Vision of the European veal sector. In Euroveal. Retrieved 16 December 2022, from https://fefac.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Vision_Paper_veal_Sector_final_Friday-15-04-2021.pdf

7. Commission Regulation EC 566/2008. Laying down detailed rules for the application of Council Regulation (EC) No 1234/2007 as regards the marketing of the meat of bovine animals aged 12 months or less. Retrieved 27 October 2022, from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32008R0566

8. Council Directive 2008/119/EC. (18 December 2008) laying down minimum standards for the protection of calves. Retrieved 18 December 2022, from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/eudr/2008/119/contents#

9. AHDB. (2015). Better Returns from pure dairy bred male calves. Retrieved 18 December 2022, from https://ahdb.org.uk/knowledge-library/better-returns-from-pure-dairy-bred-male-calves

10. Scientific Opinion on the welfare of cattle kept for beef production and the welfare in intensive calf farming systems. (2012). EFSA Journal, 10(5), 54–57. Retrieved 14 October 2022 https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2012.2669

11. Compassion in World Farming. (2019). Calves reared for veal. Retrieved 11 October 2022, from https://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/cows/veal-calves/

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