This week’s New York Times food section contains an article by Ben Paynter headlined “Veal Farmers Adopt More Humane Methods.” The article is accompanied by a lovely photograph of healthy-looking cows and calves rambling through an open field, and it begins with a description of baby cows that “spend their days in pastures with trees for shade and ponds for wading.” On one recent day, Paynter tells us, “the calves awoke in the field to nurse or graze on grasses including fescue, orchard, rye and clover.”
Sounds pretty good, especially compared to traditional veal-production methods, which involve crating calves so they can’t move and feeding them only milk so that their meat turns out pale and tender. But treating calves like living creatures, rather than white-meat machines, is hardly a sweeping trend. Paynter leads by noting that Strauss Brands, the company on which the article focuses, produces 25 percent of our nation’s veal. But further down, he reveals that Strauss only “produces about 5 percent of its veal this way.” That suggests only about 1.25 percent of America’s veal is pasture-raised. (Paynter mentions “a few other small veal farms” that raise their calves this way, but acknowledges that “Strauss is the only major player.”)
What about the remaining 98.75 percent, give or take, of the American calves slaughtered for their meat? They’re mostly raised “in small groups in pens” and “fed a whey-based formula of milk with an increased iron content and given access to roughage.” Ah, that sounds so much more humane than the traditional way!
It’s great that a few farmers are allowing calves to indulge their instincts, eat grass, and nurse from their mothers, and it’s fine for Paynter to profile one of them. But the headline on his article is a tad misleading. Most veal calves are not raised humanely, and the negative image that has caused veal consumption to drop more than 90 percent since the 1970s is still largely accurate. If you stopped your habit of eating veal back then, the article doesn’t offer much reason to start again—unless you can get your hands on some of that 1.25 percent.