• Friday, June 2, 2017

    The Milk-fed Veal Industry

    As a meat scientist I get lots of questions about all kinds of different meat, and most of the time, I feel pretty confident answering them. If I don’t know the answer, I definitely know someone who does.

    …unless I was asked about veal… Veal was one topic I didn’t feel very knowledgeable about. I grew up in a rural area in the middle of the country where few people served veal at home and few restaurants offered veal on their menus. There aren’t any veal farmers to go ask or veal processing plants to go tour. Honestly, I just avoided questions about veal because I didn’t know the answers.

    Travel with me, you have to take a
    Until… I was invited by the American Veal Association to attend a tour of the American milk-fed veal industry. They brought me to farms in Indiana and Pennsylvania, feed processing plants, and veal processing plants. It was a whirlwind of 3 days of veal tours that I enjoyed with a dairy farm blogger and friend of mine, Krista Stauffer (the Farmers Wifee), a food and ag blogger and new friend, Heather Tallman (A Basil Momma), and my buddy, Donna Moenning from Look East, an ag and food marketing group.

    I learned so much that there’s no way to fit it all into one blog post, so I’m going to write a series on the veal industry. Today’s post will be an overview of what veal is and some big-picture things that I learned. Then I’ll write a post going more in depth about the way the calves are cared for and what they are fed. In true Mom at the Meat Counter fashion, I’ll have a post devoted to veal slaughter and processing. Lastly, I’ll have a post about eating and cooking veal because … It. Is. Amazing!

    What is veal?

    Veal is meat from young calves. While beef is typically harvested at 14 to 16 months of age, veal in the US comes from calves that are younger than 6 months.

    Veal is largely a byproduct of the dairy industry. Cows must have a calf to produce milk, and female calves (heifers) are kept in the herd to become the next generation of dairy cows. Most male calves are sent to the beef industry where they are grown on milk replacer, grass and grain to become beef at about 14-16 months. A smaller percentage of the male calves are used for veal production.

    There are three types of veal.

    1. Bob veal comes from very young calves, typically about a week old. It only makes up about 10% of the veal produced in the US. We didn’t see any bob veal on our tour. These calves go directly from the farm where they are born to harvest.

    2. Milk-fed or special fed veal comes from calves that are about 5 months of age. These calves are raised on veal farms and fed a milk replacer, kinda like baby formula. They are also fed grain when they get old enough to eat it. Milk-fed veal represents about 85% of the US veal industry.

    Some of the cuts available from Catelli
    Brothers Veal. We visited their plant.
    3. Grain-fed veal is a very small part of the industry in the US. These calves are a little older and are fed grain in addition to milk replacer. We didn’t see any grain-fed veal on our tour either.

    Veal is light reddish-pink in color and has a very mild flavor so it is a favorite of chefs because it accepts flavor and seasoning very well. It is extremely tender and lean. Many of the cuts are served bone-in. Veal is very popular in French and Italian cuisine.

    Americans eat less than ½ a pound of veal per person each year (compared to about 57 pounds of beef eaten per person), whereas Canadians eat over 2 pounds of veal and French-Canadians eat about 6 pounds. Each week the US harvests about 4,000 milk-fed veal calves, compared to about 600,000 animals for beef.

    Two young veal calves at an Amish farm we visited.
    I’m going to go into a lot more detail in upcoming posts, but I wanted to share a few of the surprising things that I learned on my tour.

    • About 75% of the veal raised in the US is cared for by Amish and Mennonite families. 
    • Milk-fed veal is located near the cheese producing areas of the country. The milk-replacer is made from cheese byproducts (whey) and added fats.
    • Veal farmers are trained in Veal Quality Assurance programs to ensure that the calves are well cared for. Veal was the first industry to adopt a Quality Assurance program.
    • Veal calves receive milk replacer for about the same amount of time that beef calves drink milk.
    A farmer in Indiana is feeding the milk replacer to his calves.
    They are eager for their breakfast. 
    • Calves are allowed to eat grain once they are old enough. In all the farms I visited, the calves had free choice grain.
    • Calves are closely monitored for anemia and other health concerns.
    • Veal calves are not castrated or dehorned.
    • Until they are about 8 weeks old, veal calves are raised in conditions a lot like all dairy calves. In the barns I saw, the small calves were in individual pens because they will suckle on each other and cause health problems. But, they can see and touch their neighbors.
    • Once they reach 8 weeks or so, calves are housed in group environments. They may be moved to group barns with 3 or 4 calves in a pen, or simply combined in a pen with their neighbor. Group-raised veal was a policy goal of the American Veal Association and over 90% of their farms operate this way today. All of the farms represented by the AVA will use group housing by the end of this year.
    • Calves are never tethered or restrained. The barns were quiet and the calves all seemed very happy. 
    • Milk-fed veal calves are harvested at about 5 months and weigh about 500 pounds. 

    This tour was such an eye opening experience. The veal I ate while on the tour was absolutely delicious. I am planning to buy some veal to serve to my family and will definitely order veal if I see it in a restaurant. I know that the animals are raised in good conditions and well cared for. I’m confident that the harvest and processing met my standards of humane animal treatment and food safety.

    I hope to help answer some questions and concerns that people may have about veal with this series of posts. If you have a question or a comment, please leave it below.

    Please know that I am tolerant of differing opinions, but I will not tolerate abusive or threatening language. All the comments are monitored by me before they post.

    Here are a few more links to info about veal

    American Veal Association

    Catelli Brothers

    Marcho Farms

    Midwest Veal

    Strauss Brands Veal

    Veal Made Easy

    Veal Quality Assurance


    1. What about Meadow Veal (sometimes called Free Range...Strauss raises this kind)? What percentage of the veal market is made up by this type? Also, if calves are fed free-choice grain, is the color of their meat still white?

      1. We saw a few calves that were in pens that allowed them to go outside in Indiana. I don't think that practice is used in a significant portion of the industry.
        Veal from milk-fed calves was a light pink color. Similar to Pork. It was not what I would call white.
        Thanks for the great questions!

    2. This was ENORMOUSLY helpful! I must admit, I sometimes get wrapped up in concepts on social media that are outdated and misrepresented, but presented as current. I love to eat veal, but questioned the industry due to things I had seen on social media. Thank you for sharing.