Veal: Gateway Meat for Omnivores

Photograph from RobRyb on

If bacon is the gateway meat for vegetarians, then veal is certainly the same for omnivores. For despite its incredible taste and unique texture, it can't be denied that the most veal is raised in a way that is inhumane. Veal is a byproduct of dairy production, and most American producers routinely separate calves from their lactating mothers soon after birth, house them individually in tiny, dark crates to restrict movement, and feed them milk replacer until they are slaughtered at 3-14 weeks. However, the American veal industry has also made many positive strides in recent years, and these days it is even possible to find humanely raised veal that has had some access to pasture.

Dr. George Saperstein, professor and department chair at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine has created a system for raising bull calves for veal where the animals have access to mothers' milk as well as room to roam as they grow. He founded the Azuluna Brands to encourage small-scale and humane veal (as well as chicken egg) production in the Northeast U.S., and given some of the buzz it's created over the past year, the program has been a huge success. I recently got the chance to ask Dr. Saperstein some questions about the project and where it's headed.

SE: To what extent has the Azuluna project been successful in the greater Boston area, and have any similar programs based on Azuluna's model sprouted up in other metropolitan centers?

GS: The veal has been moderately successful in the Boston area and the eggs have done extremely well in the Roche Bros. and Whole Foods Stores that carry them. The key to success for all our products is to reach the point where the average consumer recognizes the brand and understands what the brand stands for. In order to accomplish that for veal we need a combination of good press and for chefs to serve it under the brand name. To date we have not been able to supply enough veal to the marketplace so that chefs will feel comfortable printing Azuluna on their menus.

Because we welcome all New England farmers who agree to follow our protocols, including all breeds of dairy and beef calves, we see slight variations in size of cuts. This is natural, as different breeds have been developed over the years with different body types and we don't control the environment of the calves. So a chef may order 2 racks of Azuluna veal and receive racks that are not identical in appearance, as they are used to seeing when they order formula fed veal. Formula fed veal calves are all large framed Holstein-Fresians rasied under identical conditions. This chef behavior isn't surprising, as the entire meat industry has followed the mantra of "consistency" over the last 40 years, thinking it is what the consumer demanded (which is true for most consumers). So, ironically, even though the chefs love the flavor and the Azuluna story and that the flavor and texture is excellent regardless of the size, many of them will stop buying it or complain to the distributor that it lacks consistency in size. This is a problem for the high end cuts only - as the chefs are fearful of serving chops of differing sizes and charging the same price.

The solution to this problem is to get more producers raising the veal and to expand the market into NYC. This would balance out the size problem, as cuts could be grouped by the distributors according to size. However, in order to recruit more producers, I need to promise them a market. The old chicken and egg problem. Another solution is to expand into retail and for the first time, starting this past weekend, certain Whole Foods Markets are test marketing Azuluna veal. In summary, chefs, food critics, diners, environmentalists, and animal welfare advocates in Boston love Azuluna veal. We have never sold any veal that wasn't wonderful in terms of flavor and consistency. But we have a long way to go to become mainstream in that market.

I don't follow who is adopting our methods, but I am aware of 2 successful programs. This doesn't surprise me, as I get calls from people all over the country and am happy to provide them with the protocols and information, as long as they will market their products as local under their own brand. Strauss Veal is selling meadow veal in Wisconsin. Ayrshire Farm in Virginia has been very successful in selling veal raised according to our protocol both retail and in their own restaurant. I visited them last year and helped them with their veal program.

SE: You have said, "If we want locally produced meats, we need local slaughterhouses and meat cutters, and the state should offer tax breaks, initial financing and training to people interested in creating these kinds of small businesses and pursuing these jobs." Have we made on progress on this front, or is it still just as difficult for small farmers to process meat?

GS: It is still just as difficult. Some of our producers have to drive their calves 4 hours to an approved slaughterhouse. Because of the growth of pasture-based livestock products, the few remaining slaughterhouses are overbooked in the fall and have little to do in the winter. A group has formed in Vermont to try and bring a slaughterhouse back to life in Westminster. The state of Massachusetts has given a grant to a slaughterhouse in Athol that burned down last year.

Because of the issues you list above, it is very hard to write a business plan that would get funded. Not to mention the issue of where to locate it so that neighbors won't complain and the problem of waste (the rendering industry is more dead in the northeast than the slaughterhouse industry).

Even with a good slaughterhouse, transportation is still an issue. Transporting calves from Maine to Connecticut or vice versa is inefficient. Similarly, the cost of transporting the meat to market also adds to the cost. Transportation costs are perhaps our biggest obstacle in terms of making these products profitable for small farmers.

Interestingly, we have solved that problem for Azuluna eggs. In that system, we match one producer with one store and train them to become egg processors as well as farmers. They deliver their eggs to their store and the store advertises them as local.

SE: There have been objections from veal industry folks about the term pasture-fed veal, that is that veal necessarily implies restricting calves' access to pasture. What's your response to these objections?

GS: Originally in Europe, veal was made from a dairy calf that was allowed to nurse its mother while both had access to pasture. A calf becomes a ruminant over the first 6 months of its life. It grows best on milk, as it takes time for it to develop the ability to digest grass. The U.S. veal industry changed the rules of the game in the early 1950's when milk replacer was invented by Land O Lakes. For the first time, calves could be raised without cows and veal producers started buying up male calves, which were readily available as dairy farms began getting bigger and less diversified.

Azuluna calves are slaughtered when they are 4 months old and have been drinking all the whole milk they wanted whenever they wanted it (rather than milk powder, water, and vitamins and minerals twice a day). Yes, they nibble on grass and hay and sometimes a little grain, but the bulk of their diet is whole milk, which, combined with exercise, makes Azuluna veal so good.

There are people who raise grain-fed calves on pasture and butcher them around 4 or 5 months and call them veal. Calves will grow OK after they are weaned early and fed grain, but the meat is more like a poor man's beef than it is veal. My guess is that it is these calves the veal folks are talking about. The veal industry can't copy what we are doing because our method requires nurse cows.

SE: I have read that farmers are skeptical at first when they hear about the project. Do you find that's changing as the sustainable and local agriculture movements are gaining in momentum? Do you foresee more and more small farmers switching to these methods? What other challenges lie ahead?

GS: There are quite a few small farmers who are interested in projects like ours. But without the promise of premium pricing and a sustainable market, recruiting more farmers will remain our biggest challenge. While I am very optimistic about the growth of non-livestock farm products, I am cautiously optimistic about perishable animal products. It gets back to the infrastructure problem as well as the need to do a better job educating consumers about where their food comes from.

Lastly, when we get consumers to try a product like ours, we must do all we can to make sure they continue to want to pay a premium price. That is why our marketing efforts are focused on local common sense production and high quality. In the end it will be taste, not the story, that sustains the program.

Click here for a list of restaurants in New England that serve Azuluna veal. Restaurants in New England interested in serving Azuluna veal should contact the distributor, Dole and Bailey.