There's a growing movement in this country to improve the quality of food served in restaurants, and how that food is produced. This new Farm-to-Table feature will put a spotlight on the purveyors who are making efforts to produce products that everyone will be proud to serve.
BABIES: Veal farmer Tom Green and his daughter feed veal calves that are raised in larger holding pens where they can socialize.
According to a recent Technomic study, restaurant users rated animal welfare as one of their top three concerns relating to social responsibility in foodservice. This comes as no surprise in light of the increased consumer interest in knowing where and how their food is raised. The recent foie gras ban in Chicago points to just how passionate some are about animal welfare.
The veal industry, for example, is all too familiar with this sort of scrutiny. The urban myths that have sprung up for years surrounding the poor treatment of veal calves border on the ridiculous, yet there are changes taking place within the veal industry that will appease even the most critical and generate a renewed interest in a product that has long been revered by the public and chefs.
Veal farm managers, including Pat Kilsdonk of Rib River Livestock in Wisconsin, and farmers such as Tom Green are working hard to implement more modern farming procedures to the veal industry. They have brought animal husbandry practices from Europe to the U.S. that are resulting in veal worthy of the "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" designation of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a nonprofit supported by the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the U.S. Humane Society.
The main change Kilsdonk's 18 Wisconsin farms are putting into practice is group, or loose, housing. Instead of raising veal calves in individual stalls, the newer practices allow six or seven calves to live in large pens together. Additional improvements: They are fed not only milk products but also grains. And they are not tethered.
"I visited a variety of farms in Europe, mostly in Holland, in the fall of 2004," Kilsdonk says, "and I loved what I saw there. By spring, we were already remodeling one of our barns."
Tom Green, one of the farmers who raises Kilsdonk's calves, has remodeled to accommodate 200 calves in group housing. Expense aside, it's been a great experience for him. "I'm in the business of raising animals," Green explains. "The healthier, happier and more content my calves are, the better they will do, and the better my business will do. I'm committed to making these new practices work."
Other farms are following suit. "The trend toward group housing methods is taking hold gradually, but the industry goal is to transfer all veal farmers to the new method by 2014—or better, 2010," says Dean Conklin, executive director of veal marketing at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Many farmers in the nation's largest veal-producing states are employing the new practice, and other states are beginning to, as well. It will take time, because farmers have to invest resources into remodeling or rebuilding."
Processors are loving the changes. Their customers want naturally raised veal, and now they can absolutely deliver that. "In addition to addressing customers' animal welfare concerns, we are getting truly high-quality veal," says Michael Mosner of David Mosner Inc., a leading veal supplier based in New York City. "It's clear that these calves are thriving; they're weighing in at 25 to 30 pounds heavier than before. And the quality is actually better than before."
Mosner has earned the privilege of using the Certified Humane label, which entails passing annual audits that ensure veal farmers are meeting stringent requirements, including but not limited to the following:
- Calves must be raised without confinement, in small groups, untethered and on a wholesome diet that satisfies basic nutritional needs, including those for iron and fiber.
- Feedstuffs must be free from antibiotics, growth-promoting hormones and mammalian-derived proteins, with the exception of milk and milk products. The calves must be given roughage by the age of five weeks.
- The use of electric prods is prohibited, and calves must have adequate space for lying down and stretching out.
"We're working hard to give consumers and foodservice operators a product they feel good about," Kilsdonk says. "In fact, we encourage restaurant operators to visit our farms personally so they can see the level of care we provide for these animals. We're confident they will like what they see."