Why Is Veal Considered Inhumane?

From an animal rights perspective, there is a lot to cover with veal.

Calf in barn

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Veal is meat that comes from young calves. Unlike beef, or meat from adult cows, veal is produced when calves are at most 18 weeks old. Most calves in the veal industry are male and would otherwise grow to be bulls; female calves in animal agriculture are often raised as dairy cows.

Along with foie gras and shark fins, veal is considered especially cruel in the animal rights community. Here, we explore veal production and the ethical issues of the industry at large.

Veal Production

The calves used in veal production are a byproduct of the dairy industry. While calf farm conditions vary, many calves have spent much of their short lives confined to small wooden or metal cages known as veal crates. This crate is barely larger than the calf's body and too small for the animal to turn around. Fortunately, veal crates have been banned in some states including California, Arizona, and Maine.

Calves are also sometimes tethered so that they don't move around much, which keeps the flesh tender. And typically, instead of living on the mother's milk, the calf is fed a synthetic formula that is intentionally low in iron to keep the animal anemic and the flesh pale.

Types of Veal

Veal products can be categorized into four types, according to the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association: bob, milk-fed, red, and free-raised.

  • Bob veal is produced from newborn calves that are just a few days or weeks old at slaughter.
  • Milk-fed veal is produced when calves are around 18 weeks old. These calves are fed a low-iron diet of synthetic "milk" to cause anemia, which impacts the final meat product.
  • Red veal calves are fed a more sustainable diet of grains, hay, and milk replacer.
  • Free-raised veal calves are not only less confined; they can stay with their mothers after birth and are provided more open space to roam.

Unborn calves are sometimes found when an adult cow is slaughtered and happens to be pregnant at the time of slaughter. Meat from unborn calves is now illegal for human consumption in the United States and Canada.

Veal's Ethical Issues

Veal is automatically off the menu for both vegans and vegetarians, who abstain from all animal meats. Within the fundamental issue of animal exploitation and slaughter, there are several specific concerns around the veal industry that are worth acknowledging.

Weaning Calves From Mother's Milk

Calves are separated from their mother almost immediately after they are born. This causes behavioral and physical stress for both the calf and the cow. Also, without the mother's milk, the calves lack important antibodies that protect them from infection.

Research also found that sucking as a behavior is crucial, and not only for natural milk consumption. As a survival mechanism for many mammals, sucking is biologically necessary; when absent, it disrupts normal feeding processes and the health of the calf.

Causing an Iron Deficiency

Most industrial calves in the U.S. rely on liquid milk replacer, which is purposefully insufficient for the animal. The liquid is low in iron, which causes calves to be anemic, translating to white-meat veal at slaughter. Iron deficiency can make it difficult for mammals to fend off infections and continue regular growth, in addition to other health problems.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How old are calves when they are killed for veal?

    Calves raised as veal typically grow to be about 18 weeks old before slaughter. However, bob veal comes from calves that are much younger, only a few weeks old.

  • Is veal legal?

    Yes, veal is sold legally in the United States. There are restrictions in some states regarding animal confinement prior to slaughter. Further, slink veal is not legal.

  • Is it possible for veal to be humane?

    While some companies may market veal as humanely raised—if, for example, the calves were allowed to remain with their mothers after birth, or if they got to roam around outside of a veal crate—many animal advocates believe that "humane veal" is an oxymoron.

View Article Sources
  1. Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry.” American Veterinary Medical Association.

  2. "Farm Animal Confinement Bans by State." ASPCA.

  3. "Facts on Veal Calves." Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. 2018.

  4. "An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Veal Industry." The Humane Society of the United States. July 2012. 

  5. Joerling, Jessica, and Klaus Doll. “Monitoring of iron deficiency in calves by determination of serum ferritin in comparison with serum iron: A preliminary study.” Open veterinary journal vol. 9,2 (2019): 177-184. doi:10.4314/ovj.v9i2.14