09/12/2013 08:45 GMT | Updated 05/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Veal: It Doesn't Have to Be a Dirty Word

Back in 2006 the future looked bleak for male dairy calves. Over 80,000 were killed on farm when they were just a few days old and half a million were being exported live to the continent.

Unfortunately, unlike their female counterparts, male dairy calves were seen as an unwanted by-product of the dairy industry. Cows have to get pregnant in order to continue to produce high yields of milk, producing male calves that were not seen as suitable to produce beef.

Veal became a dirty word in the 1980s due to the deplorable conditions calves were kept in. Calves were confined to restrictive crates, deprived of light and the freedom to turn around. Consumer pressure led to the veal crate being banned in the UK in 1990, it took the rest of Europe until 2007 to catch up. The whole unpleasant business left a lingering association in people's minds of veal being cruel.

Whilst the UK lost its appetite for veal, the demand for veal calves in Europe led to the live export trade in young British calves to flourish. The thriving trade was a sign that the UK market had failed to create viable alternatives to give male dairy calves a future.

The Beyond Calf Exports Stakeholders Forum was set up by Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA in 2006 to address the challenge of creating a market in the UK for bull dairy calves. Last week, I was privileged to speak at the presentation of our final report (27th November) to media and stakeholders. The stakeholders involved are leading retailers, processors and producers, a veritable 'who's who' of the food industry. We started this journey uncertain of what the future held; much like a new-born calf, over the years we gingerly took our first steps forwards to find solutions.

A key achievement of the Forum has been to reduce the live export of calves by 90%: now just 2% of dairy calves born in Britain are exported live abroad. Professor John Webster, Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol speaking at the Calf Forum event emphasised that despite the title of the Forum, it's not about exports but alternatives.

I am delighted to report that since 2006, there has been a 58% increase of the uptake of male dairy calves into the beef chain. Now, 86% of male dairy calves born become a valuable asset to the beef industry. The beef and dairy industry have been working together, recognising the mutual benefits to be gained from rearing previously unwanted dairy bull calves as veal or beef.

Consequently there has been a reduction in the number of calves shot on farm. In 2006 over 80,000 calves were shot whereas now 54,670 are. This represents just 12% of male dairy calves born in Britain and a decrease of 36%. Although bovine TB remains a challenge, there are an estimated 30,000 calves being held on TB-restricted farms that may not be available to the beef and veal markets. The progress despite this limitation has been remarkable.

For all parties involved in the Forum there has been a huge attitudinal shift. Male dairy calves were once thought of as an unfortunate waste product of the dairy industry yet now they have proved their economic viability. A preconception that dairy calves are only valuable to the veal market has been quashed with successful case studies proving they can also be raised for beef. The Calf Forum is a model for the future, there have been challenges but it has been hugely impactful in terms of the numbers of calves whose lives we have been able to improve.

The higher welfare veal produced in the UK where calves are able to eat a more natural diet, higher in iron, is known as rosé veal for the pinker flesh it produces. When buying veal, make sure you buy higher welfare rosé veal from the UK to ensure that you are supporting the incredible work of the Calf Forum.