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The politics of food: Veal

I'm passionate about food, but I know it's just food. Once past the palate, it's all more or less the same. It's just fuel to keep us going until the next meal.

Nevertheless, food is political. Since Jesus broke bread with his apostles, food has always been more than mere sustenance. Food shows status and the lack of it. It's a statement about political leanings and personal choices. Food can bring people together and drive them to war.

Vegetarians swear off meat because they believe we no longer need to consume animals. Animal rights protesters picket restaurants to protest the use of certain ingredients. In the past few years, some of these groups have gone so far as to vandalize restaurants, intimidate staff and harass customers because they disagree deeply with the products on the menu.

Atop many activists' lists are surely veal and foie gras.

Few products seem to stoke people's anger more than the enlarged liver of water fowl and the meat of baby cows. And I think this anger is too often based on ignorance and agendas.

(Let me get this out of the way: I like veal and foie gras. I like them a lot. It was my interest in these products, as well as the controversy surrounding them, that led me to learn more about them and how they are produced.)

Most people, I believe, know little about veal and foie gras production. Most people are probably unaware that veal is a byproduct of the dairy industry. Therefore, the more cheese we eat, the more veal dairy farms will produce. And I do not believe most people know much about the process the French call gavage. It is central to foie gras production, so whether you plan to eat foie gras or protest it, you should be familiar with the forced feeding technique.

During my next two posts, I will explore these two products and provide recipes. In the end, you may be no more inclined to eat veal or foie gras than before. That's fine. At least you will know more about these products and why you may or may not want them on your plate.

When produced properly, veal and foie gras are fantastic products. When produced under poor conditions, they are every bit the epitome of suffering and animal cruelty that organizations like the Humane Society, Society for the Protection of Animals and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claim they are.

Of course, every meat product we eat has or has had problems. Unfortunately, there is not a segment of the American agricultural industry that been free of abuses and abusers. Upton Sinclair might have exposed some of these issues a century ago, but as Robert Kenner showed in his film Food Inc., there are still plenty of problems today.Is the solution to stop eating meat? Some would say so. But given the numerous problems with the industrial production and importation of fruits and vegetables, maybe we should give up those foods as well.

That doesn't leave us with much, though.

Fortunately, we seem to be more aware of these issues today and interested in alternatives. That has given rise to farmers markets, Whole Foods, Yes Organic Markets, as well as organic and free-range options at traditional grocery stores like Harris Teeter and even Wal-Mart.

Despite becoming more educated about the food we eat, veal and foie gras remain taboo. They shouldn't be. The production of veal and foie gras can be every bit as humane as pasture-raised beef and free-range chicken.

Veal touches a nerve for two reasons: the way in which the calves are raised, and the age at which they're sent to slaughter.

Traditionally, veal calves are male dairy cows, which don't develop as much muscle (meat) as beef cattle. And because male dairy cows don't produce milk, only a small number are raised to adulthood for breeding purposes. The rest are used for veal (if they weren't used for veal, they would probably end up as dog food).

The common way dairy farms raise veal calves in a hutch, or box, which restricts their movement, thereby keeping the meat as soft as possible. When a calf reaches about 250 to 300 pounds, it's sent to slaughter. Understandably, this method bothers a lot of people (by the way, this is very similar to the way most industrial chicken farms raise their birds).

Forrest Pritchard doesn't raise his calves in a box. He also doesn't raise dairy cows. On his Smith Meadows Farm near Berryville, Va., Forrest raises beef cattle on pasture land. A few of the calves are regularly pulled from the herd at four to five months for veal.

Forrest said he does this to give his customers the option of purchasing veal. It also doesn't cost him any extra money. The traditional method of raising calves for veal requires building hutches, having a building to house the hutches, hand feeding the calves powdered milk and grain, and cleaning up after them.

Forrest simply allows the calves to remain with the herd until they naturally wean from their mothers. Although this is a cheaper, more humane way of raising the veal calves, Forrest notes that most dairy farms don't have pastures. Therefore, dairy farms might see the hutch method as their best alternative.

As for slaughtering a cow at four months, keep in mind that many livestock animals are slaughtered at that point or earlier. Pigs, lamb and turkeys are slaughtered at about four to six months. Chickens go to slaughter at around 8 weeks.

Despite raising veal calves in a humane way, Forrest says he still faces complaints and criticism for selling veal. Some of these folks change their mind after learning more about Smith Meadows Farm and Forrest's sustainable approach to agriculture. Some don't.

Admittedly, I've never been very comfortable with the hutch method, though I've eaten a fair amount of veal. However, with the rise of free-range veal, I see few reasons to go back to the traditional product. But there are differences.

Image003 Free-range veal tastes different, looks different and is not nearly as tender as box-raised veal. Just as grass-fed beef has a richer, purple color than regular beef, Forrest's pasture raised, grass-fed veal has more color to it than pale pink grain-fed veal. His free-range veal is also lean, and has more omega 3 fatty acids and healthy cholesterol than hutch-raised veal. As for the flavor, it tastes a bit more like beef than traditional veal.

Because Forrest's approach to farming emphasizes allowing the animals to develop naturally, he has "zero interest" in foie gras. Smith Meadows Farm recently began raising ducks, and Forrest will sell duck livers, but foie gras is out of the question because it requires the liver to be artificially enlarged.

I'll get into that in my next post.

Image057 For this meal, I picked up a couple veal porterhouses from Forrest (actually, I picked them up from his wife Nancy at the Del Ray Farmer's Market) and a bottle of Ozzy from Baltimore's stellar brewpub, The Brewer's Art. The sustainable agricultural and local craft beer movements really go hand-in-hand. Both emphasize small-scale, high-quality production to create artisanal products for a local market. The Brewer's Art's Ozzy is a faintly sweet, Belgian style ale that comes in at about 7.25 percent ABV. A 22 ounce bomber of Ozzy can be found at a few D.C. area stores that have decent craft beer selections. But if you've never had it from the tap, it's well worth the drive to Baltimore.

Grilled veal porterhouses with tomato and basil salad
(Makes two servings)

Image043 2 pasture-raised, grass-fed veal porterhouses
1 pint of green zebra tomatoes, quartered
1/2 pint sun gold, or similar orange or yellow tomatoes, halved
1/2 pint of cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch of fresh basil, left whole
1 lemon, halved
6 oz. of goat's milk feta
2 oz. of canola oil
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper

To get started, pull the porterhouses out of the refrigerator 30 minutes ahead of time, lightly coat both sides with canola oil and season generously with salt and black pepper. Keep them on the counter while you start your grill.

While you're waiting for the veal and grill to warm up, prep the salad by combining the tomatoes and feta. I went with goat's milk feta because it is a little less salty than sheep's milk feta and worked a lot better in this salad.

Image015 When the grill is hot, make sure you are set up for off-heat grilling by having a hot spot (directly over the coals or a couple burners on high) and a cool spot (an area without coals or a couple gas burners off or very low). Place the veal chops on the hottest part of the grill and close the lid, allowing the meat to sear for two minutes. Open the lid and give the chops a quarter turn to create hash marks. Close the lid and allow the meat to sear another two to three minutes. When a brown crust has formed on the meat, flip it and sear for another three minutes with the lid closed. After three minutes, move the veal to the cooler part of the grill to finish cooking with the lid closed (five minutes more for rare to medium rare, and seven minutes for medium).

This is a bit longer than I would normally cook veal chops, but because the meat is denser they require a longer cook time.Image032 Once the veal steaks are cooked to your liking, remove them from the grill and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Allow them to rest for 10 minutes. While the veal is resting, place half of the lemon face-down on the grill. The heat will caramelize the lemon, reducing its citrus bite and increasing its sweetness.

Also, finish the salad by gently adding in the basil leaves, seasoning with salt and black pepper, and dressing with the olive oil, balsamic and the juice from the other lemon half. By the time you're done with the salad, the lemon will be grilled and the veal will be ready.

Drizzle the hot lemon juice over the veal porterhouses and enjoy.



Much of this post reads like an attempt to dispel cognitive dissonance. There's hedging all over the place...about how veal "can be" humane, or that you've "never been very comfortable with" the way baby cows' movements are restricted so its muscles remain soft and tasty. And you write that "anger" over veal is based on "interests and agendas," yet you don't say what those interests and agendas are. Perhaps you'll address that in your next post.

Moreover, the dearth of links to support your claims is troubling, and leads me to believe that your evidence is lacking. Sure, you link to a small farm in Virginia that humanely kills baby cows, and what percentage of all veal do you suppose this farm produces? Perhaps %.01?


Thanks for the comment, Sourshoes. I do hedge a bit, because food is not a black and white subject matter. Yes, veal can be raised in a humane way, such as at Smith Meadows Farm, but the consumer has to seek it out. And I do eat veal, even though I'm well aware of the hutch method. I've also bought chickens from the grocery store even though I know mother nature never intended to create an 8 pound roaster. And while I believe organizations like PETA, the Humane Society and others care very deeply about animal welfare, their job as advocates is to argue one side of an issue. They are not looking for a middle ground, such as a humane way to producing foie gras. Many animal rights groups push for the elimination of veal and dairy products, despite the existence of alternatives to the hutch method (though to PETA's credit, they do support hutch-free veal). I understand their position, but I also understand they are a biased source with an agenda. I should have been more clear about what I meant by that statement, Sourshoes. As for the links, I could have added a bunch more, but as a general rule I tend not to. I usually link to stories we've done in the past, as well as purveyors and breweries I'm featuring. However, for my next post on foie gras I will make sure to provide all the necessary links.


PETA and the Humane Society both support cage-free veal:



There is a difference between a "bias" and a point-of-view. I don't know why PETA and the Humane Society are any more "biased" than you are. I don't think any of you are biased; rather, you have a point-of-view. There's nothing dishonest about arguing one side of an issue.


Bias and point-of-view are much the same. Advocacy organizations are in the business of arguing their points of view, and there's nothing wrong with that. But as a source of information, you have to keep in mind that they have a particular point of view, or bias, and either acknowledge that or seek another source of information. When I'm looking for information on veal and foie gras production, I'm more interested in sources like Forrest Pritchard, who raises livestock, as well as newspaper articles, and noted authors on the subject, like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Mark Caro. I did review the materials provided by the animal rights groups, but as I wasn't looking for a means of eliminating the production of veal and foie gras, I decided not to cite them any more than I did.


When I read Drew's post, I didn't get a sense that he was trying to argue one side vs the other but rather give a balances perspective on it all and let the reader decide. He also is honest and up front about how he feels about eating veal, and that it is possible to find humanely raised veal if you search it out. Maybe that's just because I know him personally though.

I do agree with the point that regular veal tastes better though.

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