Veal Calves - Photo © Twyla Francois

Veal calves

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Veal is a by-product of the dairy industry. Cows must continually have calves to produce milk for human consumption and, while female calves re-enter the system, male calves are deemed useless because they don't produce milk. Removed from their mothers a few hours after birth, they are raised and slaughtered for veal.

They may be one of three types of veal: As "bob" veal, they'll be slaughtered at one to three days old. Or, as either grain/milk-fed veal or white veal, they're slaughtered at 14-16 weeks. White-veal calves are so-called because their flesh is white, the result of milk-replacement diet deliberately lacking in iron.

The veal industry has come under sharp criticism in recent years, most notably for its cruel housing systems. These include stalls, hutches and group pens. Calves are usually placed in either stalls or hutches when very young and later are moved to group pens. The initial isolation is intended to prevent the spread of germs while the calves' immune systems are fragile. If allowed to stay with their mothers, their immune systems would strengthen naturally. Further, the loneliness and stress of isolation often induce sickness.

Veal stalls are typically small wooden structures in which the animals are chained, barely able to move, with little light and no enrichment -- all to keep muscles weak and meat tender. The stalls were banned by the European Union (EU) in 2007 and now are being phased out in Canada.

Hutches are plastic, igloo-like structures that allow the calf more room, but typically still have it chained up alone, preventing any natural behaviour such as suckling and frolicking.

Group pens enable the naturally social calves to interact with each other; however, producers often express concerns over the pens due to the fact that they allow bullying. The concern is that bullying can lead to injury, which can damage the calves' flesh and lower their value.

Bullying can be lessened significantly through enrichments, such as straw, as well as separate resting and exercise areas. Not all producers fulfill these basic welfare needs.

Veal calves generally live unhealthy lives. White-veal calves in particular are often anemic, sickly and weak. And all veal calves are "limit fed," getting food twice a day (naturally, they would suckle their mothers many times a day). This strict regimen for such young animals causes perpetual hunger, indigestion and diarrhea.

Veal producers combat this chronic illness and potential for disease by routinely plying the animals with antibiotics.

Care of veal calves in Canada is governed by a code of practice developed by the National Farm Animal Care Council. Unfortunately, the code is voluntary and continues to support systemic practices (immediate removal from cows and isolation in hutches, for example) that are inherently cruel.