To celebrate Papa Curtis turning 72, we took him to the marvellous Vita Bella restaurant as a treat. I chose the veal. Now, it is a common misperception that veal is ‘cruel’. But if one researches it, a different story emerges.
Veal is a necessary by-product of the dairy industry. To produce milk and all the other lovely dairy products based upon it, cows regularly have to become pregnant and give birth. The female calves go on to become part of the dairy herd, but the male calves have a more precarious fate. 75% of male calves go on to become meat for the beef and veal industry, though only 0.14% of that figure is specifically for the domestic veal market.
Meanwhile the 25% of male calves that don’t become beef or veal wastefully get shot at birth. This accounts for the loss of between 100,000 and 150,000 male calves per year. This is a squandering of resources, partly caused by British squeamishness about veal. Instead if the meat was widely promoted, the figure could drop.
Beef and veal exports are worth £402m to the UK economy, so need to be protected from the threat of emotional extremism, and preferably expanded to new Asian markets like Hong Kong. Veal should also be promoted for children as its mild taste, tenderness, and leanness is ideal for a child’s diet and is easier to digest than other meats.
The veal calves live in better conditions now than ever before. Contrary to common belief, calves are no longer kept in crates (which have been illegal in Europe since 2007), but are, the majority of the time, housed in groups on straw bedding. The conditions an exported calf experiences upon arriving in Europe are not the same as in 1995. Those that become rosé veal, which is favoured by Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) and the RSPCA, have a mixed diet, are looked after well, and they live between 6-9 months. Animal liberationists say this is still too short a life, but if one bears in mind that farmyard pigs, chickens, and lamb generally live for less than this, it puts it in perspective.
Veal making a comeback? Don’t have a cow, man
In 2012, there began a muted call for people to eat more veal. UK and EU regulations that had been endlessly updated for a couple of decades, stipulated farmers must obey new ethical norms. Failure to comply, or obstruction of random inspections, can carry a fine of up to £5,000. Labelling on the product also has to reflect this. And ‘hey presto!’ the whole moral dilemma had been resolved by some bureaucrats. Sadly, the whole brouhaha has left the public without an appetite for veal – they don’t want to be seen as cruel. So the campaign for a larger domestic market was on weak foundations. What was needed was strong moral arguments, but you can’t get that from DEFRA.
Farmers felt that now they’d implemented the regulations, people should eat the product. They’d been told by government it was only the lack of regulations that was holding the domestic market back. One farmer even says it is “not eating veal that is cruel” (because of the 25% of male calves that have to be wastefully shot at birth). And a foodie at the Telegraph penned an article claiming “we can now enjoy this delicate meat without the guilt trip”. Even the Guardian had a stab at promoting veal, but sadly they added the usual note of misanthropy that if we only ate cereals and vegetables, it would be better still. So is everything rosy? Not yet.
The powers-that-be, and the lobby groups they fund, such as CIWF and the RSPCA only tolerate veal that is produced to their own ethical standards. But these standards are fairly arbitrary, surround farmers in red tape, and people would be forgiven for not believing veal really has become an ethical product. Just to emphasise the arbitrary character of these new ethical standards, why is it ok to kill a male calf at 6 months, but not a few days old (bob veal), when a bull could live to 25 years? Why is it ok to separate the cow from the calf if she has human-like emotional states of mind? Why is 10 square feet ok to move around in but 5 not? Why must a calf also receive solid food when milk will do (to produce white veal)? The idea of “freedom food” is really a botched-together invention that cannot assuage the critics or overturn decades of moral condemnation of farmers and veal eaters – hence rosé veal has not taken off society-wide, but remains a niche delicacy for gourmets.
Influential bodies have not done enough to combat the stigma against veal that grew in the late 1980s and 1990s, they have actually kowtowed to it. Instead of making a case that we should be able to eat whatever we want, CIWF and RSPCA only promote “freedom food”. Furthermore, they want official stamps placed on milk bottles saying they were produced in ways that were friendly to male calves. Additionally, they don’t really want veal to go beyond being a ‘niche market’, thinking it has to be necessarily expensive to produce it in a holy way. The problem with this approach is that it will not stimulate veal production that could add variety to our diet, and prevent male calf infanticide.
Indeed, the arbitrary ethical standards applied, rather than the true human-centred case, means this form of moral judgement is entirely unconvincing and self-serving for those with airs and graces. It is veal for me, but not for thee. Therefore, the idea that milk bottles should be stamped as calf-friendly is abhorrent if veal remains culturally frowned upon amongst the hoi polloi. That idea only asks the masses to like the fact that those higher up the social hierarchy have a better diet. The middle class play ethical charades to get their veal whilst demanding Joe Public, who doesn’t get the veal, pat them on the back for their moral charlatanism. An ethereal sense of goodness therefore surrounds what really is a situation of social inequality. Whatever the intentions of the new pro-veal campaigners, it has ended up as a PR exercise for the ‘concerned’ petty bourgeois.
Although you can now hypothetically order veal through popular supermarkets, there seems to be little public appetite for it, despite the campaign. Indeed, official statistics said of the year 2014, “young bulls [i.e. veal calves] accounted for their lowest proportion of the kill since 1990.” To rectify this situation will require more than ethical tip-toeing and an extra truss of straw – that hasn’t worked; we need a bold moral case to champion the entirety of the range of meats available.
The humanist case for eating meat
So what is a human-centred moral case for veal? It is the same as the case for all forms of meat-eating: we are superior to animals by virtue of self-consciousness, itself developed by the fact we are linguistic beings. Language has infused the objective and subjective worlds with meaning, allowing human choices to be based on a belief/desire model. Of course, animal liberationists claim animals can also communicate with one another. Indeed, gulls make a particular call if corn is thrown to them which attracts others, but issue a variant of greater range if the offering is fish. Vervet monkeys’ alarm calls similarly differentiate predators, whether big cats, eagles or snakes and elicit different responses from their fellows that hear. However, none of this means the animals in question understand the meanings of these calls. They are reacting instinctively to sounds, rather than understanding the meaning of a word. A voice-activated light-switch can do something similar, though it would be absurd to claim it is a linguistic being.
Moral talk presupposes language, and is also a high form of that. If animals lack the rudiments, they cannot be moral agents, and therefore do not deserve to be placed on utilitarian ‘weighing scales’ of interests. Although most animals are sentient in their own way, moral terms cannot be adequately applied to them, they are not part of the same universe as us.
Language marks humanity out from all animals, however we should not be deceived by it. Thanks to language, we possess lives of meaning, but language can also set traps that make us think animals are like us. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest contributors to 20th century intellectual life, saw his role as indicating the sign-posts to the limitations of language, exposing where language masks truths rather than clarifies them. For example, if a vegan asked if I would still be writing this if I was a calf, that is a ‘nonsense’ question. Language in that case involves huge category mistakes that is the task of Wittgensteinian philosophy to unravel. More subtly in the case of animal rights, liberationists make colossal logical blunders by assuming a parallel between animal mental states and human ones, a leap that cannot be justified.
Wittgenstein’s theories showed that human mental states, because of their linguistic infusion, are not only private and inner, but also public and outer. Indeed, it is the latter – growing up in a human social world – that creates the individual, allowing for the form taken by the private, inner experiences we have. And this model is unique to the human species. Quite why the social creation of the mind is not always apparent to us – we tend to think it only springs from biology and genetics – was beyond the scope of Wittgenstein’s work, but a ground-breaking philosophical work that someone should write, could begin to unravel the mystery by marrying it with Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Nevertheless, the crucial step of understanding the social underpinning to self-consciousness is vital in picking apart what is wrong with the claim that animals are a bit like us, deserve rights, and that intensive farming is cruel.
A good way of showing that animal pain-behaviour is not like human pain-behaviour, for example, is by pointing out that animals cannot imitate it. They cannot pretend to be in pain when they are not. The American opossum is said to “play dead” when a predator attacks. However, it has been shown that even this is not ‘acting’, rather the creature enters a state of ‘thanatosis’, it is an automated response rather than a conscious trick. The ability to imitate is crucial for identifying if a member of a species has a part of their mind distinct from unmediated physical causation, i.e. the locus of a self that is not the same thing as this or that mental state. If they cannot pretend to be in pain, or dead, then an animal cannot understand those sensations as victimising to its subjectivity. But this is precisely why inflicting suffering matters in the human realm – it is a robbery of the potential for a happy life. If an animal is not personally aware it is ‘in pain’, it should not be a priority issue for humans. We can still feel sorry for them – that is human nature – but putting them on a pedestal demotes us. For the animal liberationists to conclude, from natural but ultimately erroneous anthropomorphism, wide-sweeping moral claims about how we must destroy farming distorts our self-understanding to our own detriment.
Finally, none of this is to claim that we shouldn’t aim for humane treatment where appropriate. But it is far more important to tackle remaining stigmas about meat eating and other barriers to a rich and varied diet for everyone. Once everyone eats well, then we can consider animal welfare. That’s why I chose the veal.