Newborn calf / 
https://www.flickr.com/photos/40803964@N08/4496751983/

Newborn calf / https://www.flickr.com/photos/40803964@N08/4496751983/ © Sander van der Wel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The ‘by-product’ of the dairy industry: three calves slaughtered per minute

Hundreds of thousands of calves are born in the Dutch dairy industry for which there is actually no market. The male calves are ‘by-products’ of the dairy industry. Follow the Money has followed the life of a male dairy calf, describing the money flows that determine his life.

[The original Dutch article was published in August 2020.]

The Netherlands is fond of dairy. The Dutch consume more than 320 kg of milk per person per year, putting the country among the top 3 worldwide consumers of dairy products. In addition, the Netherlands exports dairy products to the tune of billions of euros annually.

The cow is part of the Dutch landscape. There is a pasture grazing foundation, which aims to maintain cows out on pasture. There are subsidies for cows that are allowed to graze outside. And every spring, people living in cities go to the countryside to watch cows skipping in the meadows.

Unfortunately, dairy farmers have a problem. In order to give milk, cows must become pregnant and give birth to a calf. There is no way around this, that is how nature works.

Calves are treated as waste. Literally

That is why dairy cows are inseminated again and again. Usually, a Dutch dairy cow has her first calf in her second year of life. After that, she is re-inseminated roughly every year before she is slaughtered (when she is 6 or 7 years old). In her lifetime, a Dutch cow gives birth to three to four calves. In total, more than 1.5 million calves are born in the Netherlands every year.

The Dutch might be proud of their cows, but this is not reflected in the way we treat their children. Calves are treated as waste. Literally. They are a by-product of the dairy industry, a sector that only manages to glean a small profit through maintaining a rigorous focus on cost efficiency and the availability of a huge amount of subsidies.

In this article, we will follow the typical fate of a calf – hooray: it is a boy! – and map which money flows determine his life.

Mommy

Although Dutch companies and consumers love cow’s milk, they are less and less willing to pay for it. In December 1995, a farmer received the equivalent of 36 euro cents for a litre of milk. In December 2019, almost a quarter of a century later, that price was still 36 euro cents. Note: the inflation between 1995 and 2019 was more than 58 per cent, according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS). The value of the milk that a dairy cow produces has thus been more than halved since 1995. Many farmers are not able to cope with such a decline: since 1995, the number of dairy farms in the Netherlands has more than halved.

If Dutch dairy farming were to operate in a free market, there probably wouldn’t be a dairy farmer left. But it’s not a free market. Huge subsidy flows prevent dairy farming from further collapsing. Based on research carried out by the Dutch Court of Audit in 2019, we know that no less than 35 per cent of the average income of a dairy farmer consists of subsidies, of which the European basic payment scheme (the Common Agricultural Policy) is the most important. A study from Wageningen University shows that Dutch dairy farms receive 400 to 500 million every year in European subsidies. National and regional subsidies are also available. Yet, despite this shower of subsidies, a third of dairy farmers are still below the average Dutch income of 33 thousand euros per year.

Cows are truly milked for all that they are worth

The only ones to survive the fierce price war are the farmers who are expanding their herds and buying cows that produce more and more milk. If the costs cannot be paid from an increasing milk price, the quantity of milk sold must increase. According to Agrimatie, the average number of cows per dairy farm increased from 57 to 103 heads between 2000 and 2019.

The result: farmers are working harder. ‘I want to be able to earn a living with seventy cows. As long as costs rise and prices stay that way, it will only become more difficult,’ dairy farmer Wim van den Berg said in NRC Handelsblad. Dairy farmer Geert Leusink told de Volkskrant: ‘I would like to keep seventy animals, but then I wouldn’t break even.’ Another dairy farmer, Sjaak Straathof, told Follow the Money that his company still manages to stay afloat with 70 dairy cows, but only with strict financial management.

Meanwhile, the total amount of milk a cow produces during her lifetime is skyrocketing. While the average cow gave 23,950 litres of milk in 1995, in 2019 that quantity had become 31,553 litres – an increase of almost 32 per cent. Cows are truly milked for all that they are worth.

Our calf was therefore primarily born because the farmer has to produce and sell an increasing amount of milk. In fact, this is the logical outcome of a large subsidy flow: without the income support for dairy farmers, a much larger proportion of them would have gone bankrupt a long time ago.

Daddy

Although a dairy cow must get pregnant every year, she will never physically meet a bull. In the Netherlands, and wherever else dairy farming is highly industrialised, dairy cows are artificially inseminated. Farmers – or veterinarians, or licensed operators – inseminate cows in heat with a ‘straw’, a thin metal rod, containing a dose of bull semen that is stored in liquid nitrogen until ready for use.

Each straw costs between 15 and 60 euros. Multiply that by the more than 1.5 million calves that are born in the Netherlands every year (taking into account that not every insemination leads to a pregnancy), and it is clear that the trade of bull semen is an industry worth millions of euros. After the United States and Canada, the Netherlands is the world’s largest dairy bull semen exporter.

Bull semen: breeding value and inbreeding

The largest Dutch company in the bull sperm sector is the Cooperative for Cattle Improvement (CRV), which closed the financial year 2018-2019 with an annual turnover of 171 million euros (profit: 5 million). CRV also manages the main studbook in which the quality of almost all Dutch cows is recorded. Based on this, the reproductive value (breeding value) of Dutch bulls are calculated.

Competitors claim that CRV cheats with these breeding values in order to improve its own bulls scores. However, these accusations have never been proven in court.

There are also complaints that CRV allows its customers to inseminate their cows each time with the semen of a select group of top bulls. This leads to inbreeding. The most important Dutch dairy breed, the Holstein-Friesian, has had an inbreeding rate of 4 to 5 per cent for several years, whereas the recommended maximum inbreeding rate is preferably lower than 1 per cent.

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One of the newest techniques in the bull semen industry is the ‘sexing’ of sperm, which allows for determining the sex of the future calf. This is done with bisbenzimide (also called Hoechst 33342), a synthetic dye that adheres well to DNA. When pointing an ultraviolet laser at sperm of which the DNA has been coloured in this way, the dye will emit blue light. Since X chromosomes in a DNA strand are slightly larger than Y chromosomes, semen from which heifer calves are born (X) will emit more blue light than semen from which bull calves are born (Y). In this way, it is possible to determine the sex of a calf before conception.

The technique, however, has drawbacks. Research has shown that during sexing, many sperm cells are lost. The coloured seed has to be guided at high speed under a computer-controlled microscope, where the amount of blue light emitted is measured. The measurement of light intensity is done under high pressure, which may cause the sperm cells to suffer damage. After the procedure, they are on average less mobile, they can carry chromosomal abnormalities, and their cell membrane can be damaged. Moreover, there will be fewer sperm cells in a dose after selection. Thus, the chance of fertilisation is smaller than with unsexed sperm.

Another drawback is that bisbenzimide, the ultraviolet laser and the computer-controlled microscope cost money. Sexed semen is, therefore, more expensive than unsexed semen. The obvious advantage is that the method gives the farmer a reasonable certainty about the sex of the calf.

A bull calf is only born after the farmer has made an extensive calculation, with the price of the semen as a starting point

Dairy farmers make this type of cost-benefit assessment several times a year. For every insemination, they must decide whether to opt for more expensive, sexed semen, or cheaper, unsexed semen. For example, one dose of unsexed semen from the black-and-white (Holstein-Friesian) bull Tabasco costs 29 euros at Tellus Tigra. One dose of sexed Tabasco semen, however, costs 49 euros, while the chances of fertilisation are lower.

A farmer replaces up to 30 per cent of his herd every year. As cows must be kept constantly in a milk-producing cycle, they are inseminated every year. As a consequence, many more calves are born, including heifer calves (females), than the farmer needs. Sometimes there’s not enough space for heifer calves on a dairy farm, and it makes little sense to explicitly opt for more; hence the cheaper, unsexed semen is usually preferred.

It is clear that our bull calf is only born after the farmer has made an extensive calculation, with the price of the semen as a starting point. It is the farmer who decides from which bull to buy the semen and when the cow will be inseminated. The price he pays for the semen flows to businesses that make millions. Therefore, part of the subsidies given to dairy farmers ultimately end up in the bull semen industry.

Birth

After a pregnancy of nine months, the calf is born. The mother cow is allowed to clean her calf by licking him, but shortly afterwards, on most farms, calves are separated from their mother. According to some researchers, this is better for the cow: the longer a calf stays with its mother, the stronger their mutual bond becomes and the more difficult it will be to separate them. A cow allegedly fares better when she believes that she has given birth to a stillborn calf. In the words of animal welfare researcher Hans Hopster of Wageningen University: ‘If you remove the calf immediately, the maternal behaviour of the cow disappears quite quickly, especially in cows that have not had the experience of raising a calf.’

For the first couple of days, the calf receives its mother’s colostrum, her first milk. Colostrum is rich in antibodies that are essential for the calf to develop immunity. In nature, calves drink milk from their mothers until they are 6 to 10 months old, but in the dairy industry it is normal to start feeding calves milk substitutes already when they are two days old. After all, the motivation for allowing the cow to give birth to a calf is to get her milk production going and to sell the milk.

Many farmers also give their newborn calves too little or contaminated mother’s milk, so the animals don’t make it

After the bull calf has been separated from his mother, he is transferred to an individual box or hutch. This type of individual accommodation, where the calves can see each other, facilitates the farmer in checking the health, nutrition and excretory functions of the calf. This is supposed to increase the chances that the calf will be of high quality and that he will fetch a good price when sold.

​After a week or two, the bull calf leaves the farm.

Or, at least, this is what should happen. But often things go wrong. Research by RTL Nieuws shows that the care of newborn calves on many farms is so bad that 1 in 5 will die within two weeks. ‘The calves are born in very filthy stables where they are sometimes up to their knees in manure and urine. Many farmers also give their newborn calves too little or contaminated mother’s milk (colostrum), so the animals don’t make it. Many contract infections and die from diarrhoea.’ Such problems would arise from the increased workload on dairy farms.

The ‘market’ 

In the past, our little bull calf would be transported from the farm where he was born to the cattle market, where the farmer and the cattle dealer negotiated his price. However, after the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, these regional livestock markets were rapidly closed down. Nowadays all calves pass by one of the 32 Dutch assembly centres, where hygiene can be better monitored.

Here, each calf is assessed by inspectors and gets a ‘quality’ score. Weight is particularly important here: according to Wageningen University, Holstein Friesian calves that weigh less than 50 kg when they are about two weeks old have a two to three times higher risk of developing pneumonia. Other common calf diseases are navel inflammation and diarrhoea. All these conditions lower their sale price.

Normally calves are divided into three ‘quality categories’: calves from meat breeds that are strong at birth and with no apparent problems are ‘extra quality’. Calves that are fairly light and that have been ill are classified as ‘second quality’. Anything in between is a ‘first quality’ calf.

A live calf can be sold for less than two cups of coffee in a cafe

Supply and demand for young calves come together in the regional collection centres. Prices fluctuate enormously. For example, an ‘extra quality red pied bull calf’ brought in 165 euros in June 2019, while his brother was paid only 40 euros in April 2020. In June 2019, 67.50 euros were paid for a ‘black + red pied bull calf’ of second quality. Barely three months later that had plummeted to 5 euros. A live calf can be sold for less than two cups of coffee in a cafe.

​Such low prices are the result of oversupply. Sometimes farmers are unable to find a buyer for a calf, especially if the animal is a bit lighter than average at birth or if he has been ill during the first weeks of his life. If the sale does not succeed, the calf is euthanised. A few years ago, TV program Rambam showed that the cadavers are then burned in a waste incineration plant and end up as ‘green energy’.

However, most calves end up in specialised calf fattening facilities after transiting the collection centres. In those facilities, our little bull calf is no longer the residual product from dairy farming but turns into raw material for the veal industry.

Alternative models

None of the current milk labels requires calves to be allowed to stay with their mothers – not even the organic and biodynamic labels. Therefore, consumers cannot choose to buy milk from cows that are not immediately separated from their calves.

There are, however, individual dairy farmers such as Wim and Harriët van Roessel from the organic farm De Regte Heijden, who keep the calves with their mother for at least five months. A number of calves remain on the farm for a few more years to be fattened as beef cattle, while the rest goes to a conventional fattening facility, as there is no specialised circuit for organic veal calves.

Whoever drinks a litre of milk should also eat 200 grams of veal. You can’t eat dairy and throw the calf away

Colleague Hans Ariëns spoke with owner Wim van Roessel: ‘Citizens have no idea how the system works. They might visit one farm during the Albert Heijn “dairy cow days”, and see a very large milk tank and a very large cowshed. Behind that stable, however, is a pen with calves. And those represent only 20 per cent of those that were born: the rest have already left. Otherwise, there would have to be large stables constantly full of calves. If people saw that, they would understand that the meat from those calves is also part of the milk production. The average dairy farmer does not show these aspects. A calf is just a by-product, a waste product. ‘

‘We have many vegetarian customers who are keen on animal welfare. We made a panel for them on which we explained the whole cycle. A cow must have a calf every year. On our farm, half of the milk goes to the calf, the other half goes to the consumer. When that calf grows up, it has to end up as veal meat, otherwise, we would not be able to run our farm. Whoever drinks a litre of milk should also eat 200 grams of veal. That’s the full story. If people don’t want to accept that, they should go vegan. You can’t eat dairy and throw the calf away.’

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Fattening

Some might think that our bull calf is fattened until he becomes a large, adult bull, with whose carcass the butcher eventually makes steak and ribeye. But that’s not correct. This type of luxury beef for which a relatively high price is paid comes from special meat breeds, such as the Black Angus and Wagyu. These cattle are kept especially for their meat, they do not produce milk. Our dairy bull calf is not even processed into ground beef or cat food. That is the final station of his mother, the dairy cow, when she reaches the end of her ‘career’.

​Our bull calf, together with a large proportion of the heifer calves, ends up in specialised calf fattening facilities. Meat is produced here in two colours: rosé veal (40 per cent of all calves) and white veal (60 per cent). Rosé and white veal taste exactly the same, but consumers prefer white. Hence the price difference: according to the Veal Farmers Association, rosé veal is currently sold for about 2.80 euros/kg of slaughtered weight, while white veal yields about 3.60 euros/kg, a 29 per cent price difference.

Although white veal is more profitable than rosé, the calves from which it is made are actually worse off

​Calves reared for white veal are slaughtered when they are between 6 and 8 months old, those reared for rosé veal when they are 8 to 12 months. Although white veal is more profitable than rosé, the calves from which it is made are actually worse off. Until a few years ago, calves that produced white meat were raised on a ration of mainly artificial milk. That is not good for a calf. Cattle have four stomachs. They need it to get nutrients from grass, roughage and hay – something a human stomach cannot do. If a calf gets little or no roughage, grass or hay to eat, his digestive system gets upset. Young calves, therefore, often suffer from stomach ulcers.

In addition, these calves receive far too little iron. This is done deliberately: it is precisely the low-iron ration that results in white meat. The downside of this is that many calves develop anaemia. Scientists recommend a minimum value of 6.0 mmol haemoglobin per litre of blood for the entire life of the calf. This prevents calves from being lethargic and stiff throughout their lives. At a haemoglobin level below 4.5 mmol, clinical problems arise: the calves grow less well and are more susceptible to disease.

In 2008, the agricultural ministers of the European Union made agreements about the fate of young calves, after which an EU Directive laid down the minimum amount of haemoglobin that must be in their blood. This was determined at 4.5 mmol per litre. That is an average value, not a hard lower limit throughout the life of the calf. At such concentrations of haemoglobin, clinical anaemia will be less common but this is no guarantee against compromised animal health and welfare.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch Animal Protection Organisation (Dierenbescherming) has worked to increase the minimum amount of iron-rich food in the ration of white veal calves. They are now getting more roughage, which is then abruptly reduced in the last weeks before slaughter in order to make the meat as white as possible. According to the trade journal Agriholland, the average haemoglobin level in white veal calves is therefore between 5.0 and 5.5 mol/l. Which is better than the minimum of the European directive, but according to the Dutch Nutrition Center, the calves nevertheless ‘often suffer from mild anaemia’.

Whether 2.80 or 3.60 euros per kg is paid for veal, this is and will remain a bottom price. A veal calf yields about 150 kg of meat after slaughter, which adds up to a maximum of a few hundred euros per animal. Subtract the purchase price of the calf and the cost of feeding, housing and veterinary care for months, and it is clear that the margins are wafer-thin.

In the Netherlands, not a single calf ever is allowed to go outside – apart from the few times it is transported

All these factors make the extras that would be needed to give calves a better life virtually unaffordable. For example, to reduce costs, calves spend their entire lives indoors. Keeping calves in crates measuring 80 cm by 1.80 m has been prohibited since 2004, but the legal minimum space allowance for each calf weighing 150 kilos is now only 1.5 square metres. According to the EU Directive, after the 8th week of life, all calves must be kept in groups, but in the Netherlands not a single calf ever is allowed to go outside ≠ apart from the few times it is transported.

With such low prices, it is impossible for calf fatteners to stay afloat. If this were a free market, one calf fattener after another would go out of business. But this is not a free market. The veal sector receives 60 to 85 million euros in annual subsidies, of which the European basic payment scheme is the most important. Their total subsidy flow is smaller than the more than 400 million euros that go annually to the dairy sector, but since there are fewer veal farms, proportionally the financial support is actually greater. According to the Dutch Court of Audit, up to 81 cents of every euro a veal farmer earns consists of subsidies.

In other words: veal farmers do not derive their income from veal, but almost entirely from subsidies.

Slaughter

In the end, our calf goes from fattening to slaughter. There are seven large calf slaughterhouses in the Netherlands, andquite a few smaller ones. In 2019, they slaughtered 1.6 million calves, according to Statistics Netherlands. This translates into 4,515 calves slaughtered every day, or 3 calves per minute.

This massive slaughter operation is not always carried out according to the rules. Small and medium-sized slaughterhouses are randomly inspected by the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA). In 2018, RTL Nieuws requested the reports from this regulator and saw that abuses were regularly found.

For example, an inspector saw a calf being cut while still moving: ‘Despite the movements of the calf, he [the slaughter operator, ed.] stripped the skin off the head of the calf and wanted to proceed with removing the front hooves.’ Another inspector saw a calf being slaughtered with a blunt knife: ‘I saw that after restraining the animal, the employee had to cut four times before cutting the entire neck of the calf.’ These slaughterhouses were fined 1,500 euros for these abuses.

In response to reports from RTL Nieuws, the Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality Carola Schouten conducted an investigation into small and medium-sized slaughterhouses in the north of the Netherlands. The report was published last year. The main finding: the NVWA fails to supervise slaughterhouses. There are inspectors who want to strictly observe the rules and inspectors who, on the contrary, have very close connections with the owners of slaughterhouses. The identity of the inspector and the time of the inspection of a given slaughterhouse are known in advance. Lame and severely sick animals are transported and slaughtered, while this is prohibited by law. Similar conclusions were also drawn in 2008, 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2019.

The Public Prosecution stopped the investigation last month, although ‘we do know that things have happened that should not have happened’

Minister Schouten recently made camera surveillance compulsory in small and medium-sized slaughterhouses. According to Arco Verburg, the CCTV program manager at the NVWA, this may have a preventive effect, but we shouldn’t expect miracles from it: ‘CCTV especially helps veterinarians if they already know roughly at what point in the footage there are images of interest. Viewing images at random is still of limited added value. If new techniques can help our supervision further, we will investigate them. Step by step and in consultation with the industry.’

The vast majority of Dutch calves die in one of the seven large calf slaughterhouses. Primarily calves raised to produce white meat end up there. The lion’s share of white veal fatteners are ‘contract farmers’: they have a contract with a so-called ‘integrator’, a holding company that owns companies throughout the veal chain.

The Dutch Van Drie Group is by far the best-known integrator in this sector. The family business – all shares are owned by the brothers René, Jan and Herman – is the world’s largest veal producer and has a turnover of 2.2 billion euros and a profit of 92 million. This company slaughters about 1.5 million calves every year. The Van Drie Group owns veal farms, animal feed companies, slaughterhouses and even a processor of calfskin. It supplies the young calves and feed to the farmers under contract with Van Drie, and tells the farmer when the calf will be picked up for slaughter. Van Drie pays the farmer for the use of his stables and equipment, and for his time.

NVWA inspectors are permanently present at the large slaughterhouses; Belgium is also approaching supervision in this way. However, this is no guarantee against malpractice. At the end of 2018, the organisation Animal Rights Belgium released images of a slaughterhouse in Hasselt, Belgium, owned by Van Drie. The video – linked below – shows calves being kicked and beaten, pulled by their tails and receiving (electric) shocks to their heads, bodies and anus.

WARNING: DISTRESSING FOOTAGE

The fact that the permanent presence of inspectors offers no guarantee against animal abuse was recently demonstrated again with the publishing of undercover images filmed at a large pig slaughterhouse in IJsselstein. The footage shows pigs being kicked and beaten, not only by employees of the slaughterhouse but also by the inspectors of the NVWA, who should, in theory, guarantee animal welfare at slaughter.

Cutting

After slaughter, the carcass of our bull calf is further processed. The Central Organisation for the Meat Sector (COV) calls this heavy and burdensome work: ‘It concerns the killing and cutting of animals, physically demanding work, repetitive movements. Sometimes a cold environment, a lot of noise and with varying working hours. That is not for everyone.’

There is a minimal reward for this hard work. An employee who handles, stuns and hangs animals in the slaughterhouse or who performs ‘simple cutting activities such as the cutting of eyes and ears’, will in principle be paid in accordance with the collective labour agreement: 10.68 euros/hour. The legal minimum wage is 10.60 euros/hour.

Because of these low salaries, there are hardly any Dutch people left who want to do this kind of hard work. That is why slaughterhouse workers are brought in en masse from abroad, mainly through employment agencies. Complaints about their working conditions and treatment have been raining for years.

The people who slaughter and cut the carcass of our little bull therefore hardly earn anything from it

The meat sector has been aware of abuses at rogue employment agencies for over ten years. These agencies often also arrange housing for their employees, sometimes charging sky-high costs for this service. Despite this, slaughterhouses still do not hire workers directly. Exact figures are lacking, but trade unions estimate that at least 80 per cent of the workforce is composed of temporary agency workers and that more than two-thirds come from abroad.

The people who slaughter and cut the carcass of our little bull therefore hardly earn anything from it. Nevertheless, the animal has now finally arrived at the company that really earns something from it. A handful of players do manage to make a structural profit in this sector. Companies such as Denkavit, the Pali-Group and the Van Drie Group have integrated the entire chain from veal to meat and are tightly focused on cost efficiency everywhere. In this way, they manage to make a profit of 4 per cent, despite the low prices.

Van Drie is a family business and much of this profit is retained by the owners. According to business magazine Quote, the family has a capital of 1 billion euros, earning them the tenth place in the list of the 500 richest Dutch people.

Export

Eventually, the meat of our bull calf crosses the border. The Dutch eat little veal: an average of only 1.3 kg per year out of a total meat consumption of more than 77 kg per person per year. This has several reasons. For example, veal is marketed as a delicacy in the Netherlands: ‘The colour of white veal is due to the exclusive diet,’ writes the Online Butcher, for example. The 2017 Butchers Monitor of the Royal Dutch Butchers shows that of all types of meat, veal is by far the most expensive, with an average consumer price of 23.46 euros/kg.

Research by ngo Wakker Dier shows that the Dutch find eating veal ‘sad’. Of those surveyed who say they refuse to eat meat from young, immature animals such as lambs or calves, 81 per cent say they do so because they find it sad or irresponsible.

In France, foods may not be sold below the purchase price. This is a serious obstacle to the sale of Dutch veal in France

As a result, no less than 95 per cent of Dutch veal crosses the border. It is particularly popular in France and Italy. Dutch veal, however, gets a different status in France than it has domestically. Due to a massive oversupply of veal, it used to be mainly sold in France thanks to special advertising campaigns with big discounts, as research showed in 2012.

In 2019, however, France passed a new law to ensure that farmers receive a reasonable price for their products. The law now prohibits price promotions with certain food items. For example, ‘get two, pay one’ is no longer allowed and foods may not be sold below the purchase price. According to the sectoral trade magazine De Kalverhouder, this law is a serious obstacle to the sale of Dutch veal in France.

In any case, European consumption of veal is declining. According to Henny Swinkels, former director of Corporate Affairs at Van Drie, annual veal consumption has declined in recent years by an average of 1 to 2.5 per cent per year in the EU. The Dutch meat sector has now set up advertising campaigns to convince Americans, Canadians and Japanese to eat more white veal. The campaign budget is 1.9 million euros, 1.5 million of which has been financed with European funding.

Added value?

We may wonder what the social added value of the calf sector is. The sector creates jobs that no-one wants to do and it produces meat that we barely eat and that can only be sold through subsidised advertising campaigns. But as we have seen, the veal sector is inextricably linked to the dairy industry. Those calves are the offspring of the cows from which the Dutch more or less derive their national identity.

The sector creates jobs that no-one wants to do and it produces meat that we barely eat

There is, therefore, a reading of this story in which the achievements of the veal industry can be praised: the sector succeeds in extracting value from a residual product of the dairy sector. That is also how the Van Drie Group likes to present themselves: ‘We valorise residual flows and by-products from other sectors in several ways. We purchase calves from dairy farming that are not suitable for replacing the dairy herd. [..] We process manure from our calves and we value calfskins for the leather industry. For our slaughterhouses, maximum value means that all parts of the calf are used - i.e., meat, organs, manure, blood, skin and other by-products. The little that remains goes to a destructor where it is converted into green electricity. We also continue to expand our sales markets so that all products get a good place.’ In this version, according to Van Drie, the veal sector even fits into the ideal image of circular agriculture.

​But there is also a reading of this story in which the Dutch eat more dairy than is healthy for them, but are not willing to pay a normal price for it. The result is that cows give birth to an enormous number of calves, which have little financial value and are therefore fattened with a constant focus on cost efficiency. They are immediately separated from their mothers to be locked indoors all their lives, often suffering from mild anaemia. In this version, bull calves are fattened by farmers who work hard and yet can only make a profit thanks to enormous subsidies, to be finally slaughtered and processed by workers at the absolute bottom of the labour market.

And that’s when things go well. When things go wrong, these calves die in a smelly stable within two weeks of getting there, or they are euthanised if their market price is too low, or they are kicked, beaten and poked in their anus just before slaughter.

Regardless of how you read this story, while you read it, 45 calves have already been slaughtered. And we don’t eat their meat. Because that’s sad.

Translation kindly provided by Elena Nalon.