The rise of rose veal and its place in sustainable farming.
Scott Schoeder, chef and co-owner at Hungry Pigeon restaurant in Philadelphia, has earned a reputation for working directly with local farmers and food producers to create some of the best-loved plates in the city. It’s one of my favorite places, and in between reservations I get a taste of the menu via the restaurant’s Instagram feed.
One recent post showed a sandwich, piled high with slices of rosy roasted meat, microgreens, and cheese. Only the meat wasn’t the beef it appeared to be. Read the caption, and you’ll see it’s actually roast veal.
Read the comments, and you get a glimpse of veal’s intractable PR problem: “No thank you,” says one follower. “Veal is torture.” Hungry Pigeon replied: “Not the veal from Birchrun Hills Farm. We would never serve the commodity veal that you’re referring to.”
A history of cruelty
That commodity veal, raised on factory farms, is second only to foie gras in the disgust it arouses. Traditionally, calves have been confined to small crates, a practice that restricts an animal’s ability to move and produces the fork tender, utterly pale meat you probably expect when you think of veal. Additionally, until recently, it was perfectly legal to slaughter veal calves too sick to stand and send them on into the food supply. In 2016, the USDA changed these regulations in an effort to make treatment of veal calves more humane.
Today, there are rules against the use of veal crates in several states, though there is no federal ban. The American Veal Association, whose members represent 80 percent of the veal produced here, called for an end to crates by the end of 2018. In conventional agriculture, more producers have transitioned to the use of somewhat larger stalls and group housing methods. Thanks to the recent passage of California’s Proposition 12, that state will have the strictest regulations anywhere in the world, effective in 2020.
Conventionally raised veal, even with these changes, is not what the CSA and farmers market folks would consider a great option, but the fact is that conventionally raised chicken, cow, or pig, animals that most of the “veal is torture” crowd don’t think twice about, are more akin to a factory farmed veal calf than people think.
That reality isn’t reflected in the consumption of veal, which peaked in 1944 when Americans ate, on average, 8.4 pounds of it a year. Over the decades, thanks to veal’s bad reputation, we ate less and less. In 2008, the most recent year for which I could find data, we ate only 0.3 pounds per person per year. Compare that to chicken, often raised in extremely inhumane circumstances: Americans eat 92 pounds of chicken per person, per year, and very little of it is the Portlandia-spoofed type you probably prefer.
The rose-colored difference
Few eaters realize that there is a veal analog to that locally raised, free-ranging chicken we feel good about buying and eating. It’s called rose veal, for the pink color that sets it apart at a glance from conventional veal. It’s also sold as red veal or pastured veal.
“That pale white veal gets its color from a limited diet and total lack of activity. Calves that can be active, that can nibble grass, their meat is pinkish-red,” says Heather Thomason, owner of Primal Supply, a butcher shop that works directly with farmers to supply local sustainable meats in Philadelphia. Thomason is my butcher, actually, and it was through conversations with her that I realized how little I understood about the type of veal she sells in her shop.
Once I started talking to other experts, I felt less bad about my own lack of knowledge because even veal farmers once knew as little about humanely raised veal as I did. “Veal had never crossed my mind as a possible business,” says Julie Rossotti, owner of Rossotti Ranch in Petaluma, California. Today, she is known for her humanely-raised rose veal. But 15 years ago? “I didn’t support it. I wasn’t a fan.”
At the time, she was raising animals for her parents’ nearby cattle ranch. But Rossotti knew she wanted to do something different with her property and her animals. She explored the possibility of producing grass-fed beef, but she didn’t have enough land. In her research, she stumbled across information about traditional veal farming methods across Europe.
“Their style of raising veal is on pasture, and the animals are harvested older. I was struck by how similar it was to what I was already doing,” she says. Instead of selling her calves to a feedlot in the midwest at 8 months to complete their lives as factory-farmed beef, she could oversee their full life cycle and bring top-quality local meat to market in Northern California.
“My calves are born and raised right alongside their mothers the whole time. They drink mothers’ milk and eat grass, which is why it’s such an iron and protein-rich meat,” says Rossotti. Her veal is coveted by chefs at high-end restaurants and farmers market shoppers alike.
The truth about eating babies
The idea that veal calves are baby animals is another misconception that keeps shoppers away from that corner of the butcher’s case. “People should know that chickens only live to be six or seven weeks old. Because they don’t know, they have no problem eating that animal. No one thinks about it,” says Rossotti. It’s true that ethics-minded eaters may worry about debeaking, or too-small cages when it comes to poultry, but their qualms don’t usually include the fact that while a chicken can live 8 to 12 years, the ones we eat didn’t even make it to the 2-month mark.
Pigs are typically slaughtered at six months of age–the same as veal calves–and their natural life span is about the same as a cow’s, about 20 years. But no one is passing up bacon on account of the animal’s immaturity.
“I get rotten emails calling me a baby killer,” says farmer Lisa Kaiman of Vermont’s Jersey Girls Dairy. She says people don’t seem to realize we’re talking cow years, not people years, when it comes to agriculture. “I love my animals, I hug them. And when they are ready to harvest, they are 400 pounds. Those hugs are getting rough. They definitely are not babies anymore,” she says.
Where there is farmstand cheese, there will be veal
Like many small scale veal farmers, Kaiman specializes in milk and cheese. “On a dairy farm, you milk cows. Every cow has to have a calf every year, and half of those are male. That’s just statistics,” she says. But not all the births are blessed events–far from it.
In fact, the birth of a male calf on a dairy farm is usually a dark day. A farmer needs just one bull for breeding, at most. So what becomes of the boys? Many dairy farmers will kill a bull calf just after birth, tossing its carcass into the compost. The problem of male calves is part and parcel of the dairy business, and every farmer who produces local milk and artisan farmstead cheeses copes with it.
Boy calves aren’t just useless, they’re an immediate drain on limited farm resources. “If you ship them off to someone who wants it, you get a bill. And the animal usually doesn’t make it anyway,” says Kaiman. Some farmers bring their bull calves to auction, where they might get as little as $5 per animal, not even offsetting the cost of traveling there. Additionally, baby cows drink milk. Lots and lots of milk, a gallon or more per calf per day. When your herd’s milk is earmarked primarily to make fancy cheese, feeding the calves comes at a steep cost.
In the beginning of her farming career, Kaiman gave her bull calves away to neighbors who wanted to raise them for beef. “I wasn’t about to kill them,” she says. But as customers started asking her if she’d ever considered raising veal, because they missed veal and would gladly buy it if they could trust it was raised in a humane way, she started to see male calves as a potential resource, and not a grim dairy farm byproduct.
If you value local dairy products and the farmers who make them, you have an extra reason to consider buying their veal. Or, at the very least, you shouldn’t regard the meat they’re selling with open scorn as you stock up on your favorite cheese.
Money changes everything
Kaiman is proud her farm turns 20 this fall. “A small scale dairy farm in Vermont lasting 20 years is kind of unheard of,” she says. “It’s the veal that’s made that longevity possible.” Thanks to a complex matrix of factors including tariffs, plummeting prices, and the ascent of alt-milks (like oat and almond), America’s dairy farmers have been deep in crisis for several years.
Kaiman says an increase in depression and suicide among dairy farmers’ is even more disturbing than the rate at which farms are folding. “This isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle, and it’s handed down for generations,” she says. She wants other farmers to understand that diversifying their income stream with veal can be a lifeline.
Sue Miller, co-owner of Birchrun Hills Farm, the supplier of that Instagrammable veal from Hungry Pigeon, is herself primarily a cheesemaker. Dairy is her business, and veal was not originally part of the plan. It was her then-teenage son, Randy, frustrated with the obvious waste and missed opportunity of selling their calves for $5 at auction, who made raising and selling veal part of the business just over a decade ago.
“Randy is basically the calves’ mom,” says Miller, explaining their approach. Like other pastured rose veal producers, her farm’s calves drink mother’s milk and roam the property freely, enjoying snacks of grass and hay.
Over the past 11 years that Birchrun Hills Farm has offered veal to chefs and farmers market customers, their business has thrived. “We could never have had the same income without it,” says Miller. Much of the revenue was spent on Randy’s education at Cornell University. But ultimately, being able to keep the animals on the farm, where she knows how they are being cared for, means more to Miller than the money. “It made me sick to send them away, knowing what was likely to happen to them,” she says.
Over the years she’s been selling at a farmers market in Northern California, Julie Rossotti has found that information can be powerful in helping shoppers overcome the usual kneejerk aversion to veal. “When they talk to us, when they see the ranch, they realize these animals are living a good, natural life. They say things to me like, ‘Finally, I can eat veal again at after 20 years!’”
Back on Instagram, that commenter who initially griped about Hungry Pigeon’s veal photo replied, simply, “Thanks for the info. I will check it out,” after learning that this particular meat came from Birchrun Hills Farm. If she learns more, she’s likely to change her position.
I wanted to buy some local rose myself during the researching and writing of this story, but my butcher, Thomason, doesn’t have any right now. “I would love for Primal Supply to be an outlet for the dairy farmers of our region, but there’s still more education needed,” she says. Shoppers tend to fall into two camps: Younger people, for whom veal has always been verboten, and older people who, if they eat veal, are used to the fork-soft texture and white pallor of conventional veal and aren’t interested in another version.
“I hear, ‘No, no. I don’t eat veal,’ a lot when I mention it to customers,” says Thomason. She wants to say, hold on, what you’re thinking isn’t quite right. She wants to tell you about the relationship between the raw milk or artisan cheese you love and the doomed baby boy cows that are the inevitable result. There isn’t always time for that conversation when shoppers come and go quickly. “Educating people like this is a one-person-at-a-time operation,” she says.
She tells me to keep my eyes open, that I should see some veal in her case later this spring. “I think you’ll like it. Think of it as more tender, milky beef.” On her advice, I’ll make meatballs. “When there’s veal in a meatball, you can really tell. It’s extra special.”
Read about a farm in Maryland where cattle—including calves for veal—are raised on pasture. If you find rose, red, or pastured veal at your butcher, give these classic recipes a try—veal meatballs, veal scallopini, or that Italian summer favorite, vitello tonnato.