Veal crates are narrow, solid-sided wooden boxes for rearing surplus dairy calves for slaughter.
The crates are so narrow that the incarcerated calf cannot turn around for much of its life. Deprived of exercise, some can barely walk to slaughter at 4-6 months old.
Crated calves are fed an all-liquid, iron-deficient diet to produce the pale, anaemic white veal prized by gourmets.
Veal crates were banned in the UK in 1990, and will be banned EU-wide from 2007.
There can be few more poignant images of factory farming than that of a young calf incarcerated in a wooden veal crate, another system where the animal cannot exercise or even turn round. The suffering of tiny calves in their premature coffins rocked the UK in a major campaign in the 1980s. Peter Roberts, the founder of leading anti-factory farming group, Compassion In World Farming, took a test case against the veal crate-farming monks of Storrington Priory. The case achieved massive publicity. It also sparked perhaps the biggest consumer boycott ever known in Britain. Veal literally became a dirty word. Consumers avoided the product en masse. Veal farms were forced to switch to more humane methods or go out of business. The campaign was finally won when the UK Government declared that the veal crate would be banned from 1990.
But that was not the end of the extraordinary public reaction to the crate. Popular protest again erupted in 1994/95 against the export of live calves to veal crates on the European continent. The campaign spread to neighbouring countries and achieved worldwide media coverage. It resulted in the European Union agreeing to ban the veal crate. This was a victory without precedent. Never before had the EU legislated to ban a farming system on welfare grounds. From 2007, calves will no longer legally be kept in narrow crates.
Veal crates are narrow, solid-sided wooden boxes for rearing surplus dairy calves for slaughter. The crates are so narrow that within a short time, the calves are unable to turn round. Exercise is rendered impossible. The calves may be fully enclosed by the crate itself, or they may be chained in, or yoked by having their head held frontward by parallel metal-bars that suppress freedom of movement even further.
Floors usually consist of uncomfortable wooden slats that are devoid of bedding. Rows of crates are housed in darkened sheds. The calves are fed an all-liquid diet that is deficient in iron. This deliberate deficiency helps to keep the flesh pale, and makes for white veal prized by some gourmets. The lack of roughage in the diet prevents the animals rumen from developing properly. The calves often make desperate attempts to gain roughage by licking at the crate sides or at their own hair. The latter can lead to hairballs forming in the stomach, causing digestive problems. After 4-6 months of isolation, the calf is released from the crate for slaughter. Deprived of exercise for much of their lives, some can barely walk to their end.
The Legal Situation
EU legislation lays down minimum standards for calf rearing (Council Directive 97/2/EC). This prohibits the housing of calves in individual pens or boxes after the age of eight weeks. Up to eight weeks, any individual pen must not have solid walls. Instead, the walls must be perforated to allow calves visual and tactile contact with other calves. The legislation also stipulates that any individual calf pen shall be at least equal to the height of the calf at the withers (shoulders), measured in the standing position. The length of the pen shall be at least equal to the body length of the calf measured from the tip of the nose to the caudal edge of the tuber ischii (pin bone), multiplied by 1.1. This effectively ensures the calf at least enough room to turn round. After 8 weeks old, calves must be housed in groups.
These provisions came into force for new or rebuilt farm units from January 1998, and will apply to all holdings after 31st December 2006.
Additional requirements to ensure an appropriate diet with minimum levels of iron and fibrous food were laid down by the European Commission (97/182/EC).
The United Kingdom has for many years insisted on higher welfare standards than those required by European legislation. In particular, the close-confinement veal crate system, still used in some European countries, has been banned here since 1990. UK legislation outlawing veal crates came into force for all farms from 1st January 1990. For England, this and EU legislation on calves is now consolidated into The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000. Schedule 4 covers Additional Conditions That Apply to the Keeping of Calves Confined for Rearing and Fattening:
Example Legislation: The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000; Schedule 4
1. - (1) No calf shall be confined in an individual stall or pen after the age of eight weeks unless a veterinary surgeon certifies that its health or behaviour requires it to be isolated in order to receive treatment.
(2) The width of any individual stall or pen for a calf shall be at least equal to the height of the calf at the withers, measured in the standing position, and the length shall be at least equal to the body length of the calf, measured from the tip of the nose to the caudal edge of the tuber ischii (pin bone), multiplied by 1.1.
(3) Individual stalls or pens for calves (except for those isolating sick animals) shall have perforated walls which allow calves to have direct visual and tactile contact.
(4) For calves kept in groups, the unobstructed space allowance available to each calf shall be -
(a) at least 1.5 square metres for each calf with a live weight of less than 150 kg;
(b) at least 2 square metres for each calf with a live weight of 150 kg or more but less than 200 kg; and
(c) at least 3 square metres for each calf with a live weight of 200 kg or more.
(5) Each calf shall be able to stand up, turn around, lie down, rest and groom itself without hindrance.
(6) Subject to sub-paragraphs (7) and (8), each calf that is kept on a holding on which two or more calves are kept shall be able to see at least one other calf.
(7) Sub-paragraph (6) shall not apply to any calf that is kept in isolation on a holding on veterinary advice.
(8) For the purpose of calculating the number of calves being kept on a holding in order to determine whether sub-paragraph (6) applies, no account shall be taken of any calf that is being kept in isolation on that holding on veterinary advice.
Transitional provisions for accommodation
2. - (1) Until 1st January 2004, sub-paragraphs (1), (3) and (4) of paragraph 1 shall not apply in relation to accommodation in use before 1st January 1998.
(2) Until 1st January 2004, in the case of accommodation brought into use after 1st January 1994 but before 1st January 1998 -
(a) where calves are housed in groups, each calf of 150 kg or more live weight shall have at least 1.5 square metres of unobstructed floor space, and
(b) where a calf is housed in an individual stall or pen, the stall or pen shall have at least one perforated wall which enables the calf to see other animals in neighbouring stalls and pens unless isolated for veterinary
Section 4. of the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000 also include minimum requirements for calve diets:
Additional dietary requirements
12. - (1) All calves shall be provided with food which contains sufficient iron to ensure a blood haemoglobin level of at least 4.5mmol/litre.
(2) A minimum daily ration of fibrous food shall be provided for each calf over 2 weeks old, the quantity being raised in line with the growth of the calf from a minimum of 100 g at 2 weeks old to a minimum of 250 g at 20 weeks old.
Evidence of Suffering in Veal Crates
In 1995, the European Commissions expert Scientific Veterinary Committee (SVC) published a major Report on the Welfare of Calves. Having reviewed the wide range of evidence, the SVC made a number of important conclusions:
Conclusion 4: The best conditions for rearing young calves involve leaving the calf with the mother in a circumstance where the calf can suckle and can subsequently graze and interact with other calves.
Conclusion 10: The welfare of calves is very poor when they are kept in small individual pens with insufficient room for comfortable lying, no direct social contact and no bedding or other material to manipulate.
Conclusion 12: Good husbandry is needed to minimise disease in group housing conditions but results that are as good as those from individual housing can be obtained.
Conclusion 15: In order to provide an environment which is adequate for exercise, exploration and free social interaction, calves should be kept in groups.
Conclusion 20: Calves given an all-liquid, iron deficient diet can have serious health problems, can show serious abnormalities of behaviour, and can have substantial abnormalities in gut development.
The strength of these conclusions, together with overwhelming public condemnation of the veal crate, persuaded the EU to outlaw this system from 2007.
Scientific Veterinary Committee, Animal Welfare Section (SVC), 1995. Report on the Welfare of Calves. European Commission, Brussels.