Odd though it may seem, Janet Street-Porter has achieved a task many in the meat industry thought seemingly impossible. She has got people eating veal again. Since she appeared on Channel 4's The F-Word two weeks ago, spreading the word about the taste of the meat, as well as the quality and welfare standards of British veal, sales at Waitrose have shot up 45%.
For years, veal has been dogged with a reputation of poor animal husbandry, which has persisted in the minds of consumers long after the industry changed its ways.
Throughout the 1990s, protests about the transportation of live calves to Europe in crates brought to public attention the practice of restricting movement and feeding calves on a milk-substitute diet, rather than weaning them, to produce pale, tender meat. The enormous amount of publicity this practice received led sales to plummet, and made the meat a taboo. It still is taboo for some, not least those who work in the industry. Few people are prepared to go on the record to even discuss the issues facing the veal sector, which simply serves to illustrate the fact that veal remains a sensitive topic.
But times have changed. The crate system of rearing veal calves was banned in Britain in 1990, and rosé veal (produced from free-range calves whose varied diet gives the meat a pink colour) is gaining momentum. British veal has moved on, and, according to Waitrose, its indoor-reared veal calves "meet the highest standards of animal husbandry, feeding and welfare. Calves are housed in spacious buildings with natural light and ventilation. They also have plenty of straw and free access to water".
Although there are still some examples of the old practices, for example in some parts of the Netherlands, veal is still produced using the crate system, but the European Union is due to ban the practice in 2007, hopefully closing the door on a less-than pleasant chapter in the meat's history.
Andy Boulton, Waitrose's veal buyer, thinks standards of production are no longer a reason to avoid the meat. "Waitrose has been leading the way in animal welfare and customers are aware that veal is no longer a culinary taboo," he said.
So, veal may be back on the menu for now, but is it here to stay? Well, despite sales having risen by 45% in the last two weeks, and 79% over the last year at Waitrose, the market remains extremely small. The retailer sold just 61t of the meat in the last year, and the national market is worth less than £2m annually. There has been significant growth in the sector of 13.7% during the past year, but when you compare the size of the veal market to the £1.4bn beef market, veal has a long way to go.
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