Meat producers are under attack from animal-rights groups who are claiming that many of the nation's veal calves are raised under inhumane conditions.
The criticism of the industry's livestock practices has been growing for years and is being underscored tomorrow by calls for a national Veal Boycott Day.
The Humane Farming Assn., a San Francisco-based group, has organized the event and hopes to send a strong signal of protest to both producers and retailers of white or formula-fed veal.
Two meat industry trade associations, however, have launched an advertising campaign to counter the critics' charges. The ad, which began appearing in food industry trade journals last week, carries a headline that reads, "Veal calves aren't in the dark . . . but some people are."
There are several methods being used today to raise calves, but one of these is considered particularly offensive by groups such as Humane Farming.
This procedure involves keeping the animals tied to crate-like stalls, allowing little movement and feeding the calves only a liquid diet. The formula's solution is designed to be low in iron, thus precipitating anemia, or the condition that produces the desirable white-colored flesh. Calves raised under the other methods develop a more natural pink coloration in their meat.
The formula-fed calves are also more susceptible to illness because of the strict diet and confinement. Critics say that, as a result, illnesses frequently develop that require the administration of antibiotic drugs to maintain the calves' health. Often the confinement lasts up to four months, or until the animals are eventually slaughtered.
"The process is inherently cruel and utterly unnecessary," said Bradley Miller, executive director of the 50,000 member Humane Farming Assn. "The cruelty involved here is only surpassed by the frivolousness of the finished product. All these producers are doing is marketing a pale color meat and charging twice as much for it."
A Counter Campaign
The advertising campaign undertaken to counter such charges is being supported by the National Livestock & Meat Board in Chicago as well as the California Beef Council in Foster City.
The ad states that the animals are kept in stalls large enough for the calves to "stand, stretch, groom themselves and lie in a natural position."
However, Miller says this claim is misleading in the case of formula-fed calves. Some of the animals, he said, grow to weigh as much as 400 pounds and yet are kept in crates that measure only about 22 inches in width. The pens also prevent the calves from ever walking. When the animals do lie down they are forced into a cramped condition, said Miller.
Room To Turn Around
Mary Ryan, of the California Beef Council, said that industry studies indicate that the animals are properly cared for and there is room for them to turn around and mingle with adjacent calves.
"The bottom line is that if the animals are unhealthy and stressed then you'd get pretty poor meat and the price of veal would not be as high as it is," she said. "There must be something tasty about veal and that is not achieved as the result of stress, pain and sickness."
Ryan also said that if the animals were as sickly as some consumer groups are claiming, then the calves would refuse to eat and eventually lose their market value.
"This is just another example of a consumer interest group that has blown an issue out of proportion in terms of the general public," she said.
As evidence, Ryan cites a Gallup Poll commissioned earlier this year that found only 1% of the 500 Californians surveyed said that they have discontinued eating veal because of the industry's production practices. Another 77% said they have not changed their veal consumption in the past year.
Even so, the Humane Farming Assn. and other groups are pressing for passage of a bill in the California Legislature that would improve livestock practices for formula-fed veal. Sponsored by State Sen. Milton Marks (D-San Francisco), the measure would outlaw the highly restrictive veal crate. It would also force producers to provide enough room for the animals to lie down naturally, turn around and make normal postural adjustments. The pens, or enclosures, would also have to measure at least six inches more in width than does the animal.
The controversial bill, SB 1110, has already passed the state Senate and awaits a hearing before the Assembly's Public Safety Committee on July 11.
"I visited the places that the veal calves are kept and they are in small pens and can't turn around at all. I think it is inhumane," said Marks. "This is just a question of whether an animal should be raised in a way that is obviously cruel, whether (the producers) intend it to be cruel or not."
There have also been recent hearings on the veal calf issue in Congress. Earlier this month, the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry heard testimony about the use of antibiotics on veal calves.