What Exactly Is Veal And Why Is It So Expensive?

While not nearly as ubiquitous as chicken, beef, pork, or even lamb, veal is a relatively popular protein option, often prepared in both restaurants and home kitchens. Veal is eaten in many cuts and preparations: chops, shanks, cutlets, ground meat, and more. It is most often used in dishes such as osso bucco, veal scallopini, and veal meatballs, and veal stock is a mainstay in many classic sauces and reductions. But what exactly is veal? What differentiates it from beef? If you're ever pondered the notion of ethical veal consumption, you've come to the right place.

All Recipes defines veal as a male calf that is under 18 weeks old. Bob veal is veal from very young calves (only about one month old), while milk-fed veal differs from formula-fed veal. Cattle that are slaughtered and eaten after 12 months of age are officially "beef."

USDA notes that veal has multiple grades: prime, choice, good, standard, and utility, which notes the quality of the cut. The agency also explains that while hormones aren't used in veal raising, antibiotics may be. A statistic from 2008 says that Americans consume less than a pound of veal per year per person, which is wildly different from yearly beef, pork, and especially chicken consumption.

What exactly causes the stigma for the veal industry? If both of these foods come from the same animal, what causes such a difference?

What is problematic about veal?

Historically, opposition to the veal industry is very much in line with ethical complaints against foie gras: Concern for the animals' welfare is nearly nonexistent, and in most cases is abusive and harmful. The "positive aspects" of veal — pale flesh, super tender, and a mild flavor — are direct results of the restrictive manner in which the cattle are raised.

Traditionally, veal production involved removing newborn calves from their mothers just after birth and limiting their movement in order to ensure uber-tender flesh. Some are also fed special diets to maintain pale flesh, essentially evoking anemia by reducing iron intake. Some calves slaughtered for veal are only months old. Because of this labor and general low supply, veal is also much more expensive than beef. Another factor: Cattle farmers have a small window in which to rear and slaughter veal calves. This of course has an impact on the price of the meat.

In the 1980s, veal production encountered large backlash from animal rights activists, so there have been changes, including diet, elimination of "veal cages or crates," special pasture raising, allowing babies to stay with their mothers, and so on. The American Veal Association also called on all veal production companies to ban veal crates. It can also be argued that the demand for dairy — yogurt, milk, cheese, and so forth — helps to further veal production, since veal calves must be raised with the milk also necessary to produce dairy products (via Berkeley Wellness).

How has the industry's treatment of animals improved?

While the treatment of veal is now more paramount than ever, the ability to monitor every cattle farmer raising veal is untenable. It's nearly impossible to ensure that they're all following the current, more humane conditions for raising veal calves. Edible Communities notes that many changes have taken place in the veal industry in recent years, which has helped foster more "humane" rearing and treatment, but of course, the end result is still killing and eating the animal. Veal crates, which severely limit the movement of young calves in order to maintain the meat's tender nature, are now immensely frowned upon, but there is no means of eliminating that. Overall, however, the efforts to promote animal welfare and ethically raised animals prior to slaughter has become a primary focus in recent years, and in some instances, has also been signed into law. Veal, as well as the foie gras, kobe beef, and egg industries have undergone changes in recent years due to legislation.

Generally, Americans do not eat much veal. Edible Communities, though, notes that more humanely raised veal produces rose, red, or pastured veal, so many feel much more comfortable and ethically sound when consuming that kind of veal. Of course, purchasing and consuming "humanely raised" veal is a personal choice and the nuances of the ethics behind it vary from person to person.