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Veal and Sarah Brown: a meaty clash

Friday 17 July 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard ponders on the diplomatic row caused when Prime Minister’s wife Sarah Brown sent back veal dishes at G8 banquets in Italy. She may have been half right, he says, but such gestures by well-meaning do-gooders here in the UK have robbed young male calves of a short but happy life

WITH his government in tatters, and the nation seething with rage as dead servicemen come home because of alleged penny pinching on defence spending by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister has one shining asset: his wife Sarah, who is said to be an extremely likeable lady and has become a close friend of America’s first lady Michelle Obama

I have never met the lady, so I cannot comment on her personality, but I do realise she is a very clever lass. She has created an image of the supportive wife hovering in the background, mother of two young children, and you would think she spends a lot of time slaving over a hot stove.

veal calf
Veal Calf

In fact, before she married, she was a high-powered London PR operator who knows much better than her grumpy hubby how to spin herself a cosy, comfortable domestic image.

Now this is a column about the countryside so why on earth am I blabbing on about domestic life in No 10? That is a meaty question and the answer lies in the veal that Mrs B allegedly refused to eat at not one but two state banquets in Italy a week ago when she accompanied her man to the G9 conference, thus offending her hosts and causing much amusement amongst other European leaders.

She was, you see, making a politically correct statement of principle which no doubt went down well with the chattering classes of North London and, in fact, she could have been half right in doing so because, it Italy, young bull calves are still brought up in appallingly inhumane conditions.

They are confined to crates so small they cannot turn round, living on slatted metal grids which allow there faeces to run away, and are force-fed on a diet of milk for one disgusting reason: so that when they are finally put out of their misery and slaughtered, their flesh is almost pure white and looks pretty on the plate (particularly when accompanied by a slash of crimson tomato sauce much loved by the Italians).

A decade or so ago, this practice caused such widespread revulsion amongst the British middle classes – of which Mrs Brown is an archetypal member – that they launched major protests. These, on occasion, led to minor riots at British ports where British calves were being exported to feed the continental veal crate trade. As a result, the trade was banned and veal crates made illegal on British farms.

So far so good: a small but significant blow against factory farming, which I have always opposed having been shown round – and being made physically sick – by the proud owner of a pioneering battery hen farm in Bedfordshire in 1960.

the vilification of veal robbed millions of male calves of a short but happy life.

But here’s the rub: in their triumph these do-gooders, acting out their protests for the best possible motives, thought nothing of the future affects of their actions. Like the so-called animal rights protesters who “rescued” mink from fur farms in the 1960s, thus unleashing a plague of sudden death on British wildlife, the vilification of veal robbed millions of male calves of a short but happy life.

Calves are born male or female in roughly the same numbers but, for obvious reasons, very few males are allowed to grow to maturity, certainly in dairy herds. There was a time, however, when young males were allowed to live with their mothers until they were about six months old and went for slaughter.

The lucky ones spent that happy half year out in the fields living naturally. Their flesh, on slaughter, was never white but a sort of rose and it was quite delicious. When I lived next door to a dairy farm, I had a standing order and the whole family looked forward to it.

But then the do-gooders demonised veal and there began a nationwide boycott. Sadly, we moved and I no longer had a regular supply to butter-tender rose veal. And what happens to the great majority of male calves born now: they are killed at birth.

Whether or not Sarah Brown realises this I have no idea – although very few members of the Labour Party know anything of what actually happens in the countryside. But if she is as savvy as people say, she should speak out in favour of naturally reared British veal – and help give many thousands of baby calves a short but happy life.

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