Editor’s note: MEAT+POULTRY, along with journalists from various North American publications traveled to The Netherlands this past November to learn more about Dutch veal production and to see first-hand the possibilities for menu innovations in the foodservice sector.
The Netherlands ranks among the top producers and exporters of European veal products.
More than 1.5 million calves annually are farmed at more than 2,000 veal farms and then processed in The Netherlands, according to information from the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. In addition to domestic production of veal calves, more than 800,000 calves are imported annually.
Veal production in The Netherlands grew out of the country’s dairy industry. Dairy cows can only produce milk once they give birth, and they need to birth a calf every year to be able to produce milk. Dairy farmers will keep some heifers to restock or expand dairy herds, while bull calves are filtered into veal and leather production.
Today, producers and processors must work under extensive regulations for animal welfare and handling, traceability and food safety. All calves must be ear-tagged for identification purposes within three days of birth, for example. From eight weeks of age, calves must be raised in groups of at least two to five animals, or 15 to 70 animals for larger herds.
Calves stay at the veal farms for about 27 weeks before processing. Veal calves live in sheltered group housing, getting fat on a steady and regulated diet of milk powder dissolved in water along with some roughage. Farmers under contract must maintain detailed electronic logs of feeding times. Sick calves must be treated by a veterinarian, and any medicines administered – including antibiotics – must be logged. This information is assembled into a record that is associated with an ID number on the RFID ear tag, and the data follows the animal from within three days of birth to delivery to the customer.
If the Netherlands is a veal production powerhouse, then VanDrie Group in Apeldoorn is the generator.
“The unique thing about our company is that we don’t only produce veal,” says Marijke Everts, director of corporate affairs at VanDrie Group. “The unique point is that we are a chain producer. We have everything in our own hand; everything in our own chain. So, from the purchase of our own calves in the dairy sector to the contracts that we have with our farmers, to the feed production, to the processing of the calf skins, to the marketing of our products worldwide – we do everything by ourselves. I don’t think you’ll find any other company in the world who does it like we do.”
Corporate social responsibility is top of mind at VanDrie, and the company addresses these issues on several fronts including animal welfare, food safety, environmental stewardship and caring for employees.
“We have to take care of our people; we have to take care of our animals,” Everts says. “This is at the core of our company; it’s in our DNA.”
Several VanDrie operations are recognized and function as work placement companies that provide students vocational education and training. Caring for employees means providing opportunities for career advancement, appropriate pay and benefits. VanDrie also has invested in training employees in safety, quality, ergonomics, hearing protection and animal welfare, among other areas.
Animal welfare is another major point of emphasis for the company which strives to preserve the value of their calves. This effort starts with disease prevention at the dairy farm. VanDrie encourages producers to provide young calves “beestings” – essential antibodies, iron and vitamins the animals get from the first milk produced by a cow – and clean housing and drinking buckets of fresh water.
Disease prevention activities have helped the Dutch veal industry reduce the use of antibiotics by 59 percent since 2007.
The company also ensures proper transport for the animals by using Comfort Class trucks that are fully enclosed, temperature controlled and lighted inside. The calves can access drinking water during the ride, and they [and the drivers] are video monitored. Feed inputs are fully traceable and closely monitored to keep calves healthy.
One of the safeguards of food safety is the company’s quality assurance system called Safety Guard. “You can trace everything – not only the individual ingredients in the feed but also the cuts of meat that you find in the supermarket,” Everts says. “We can trace everything back – from ingredients to the fork.”
Furthermore, the fact that VanDrie controls veal production from start to finish empowers the company to use every part of each animal.
“And we do so,” Everts says. “We not only use all of the meat; we use the byproducts – the blood goes to the pharmaceutical industry to make heart medication. We use the manure and we recycle it; we use the skin – and everything. Nothing goes to waste.”
Return to market
In 2016, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reinstated the eligibility of the Netherlands to export beef products to the United States. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) imposed a ban on beef produced in the Netherlands after bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was detected in the country in 1997.
“It was a difficult process to gain access because it was all political between the USA and the European Union,” Everts says. “As a company, you can have the wish to access, but you always have those political things that lie in between. So, we’re really happy that all of the problems were solved.”
Next came the challenge of convincing potential customers of the product quality.
“It always takes time to convince clients – and the clients of the clients – that the product is good,” Everts explains. “We know that veal is a product that people just don’t know outside Italy, France and, well, Europe. So, we also have to educate our clients about what they can do with our product, how they can use it. That’s also why we started the Trusted Veal campaign, to share knowledge and to get to know the market. It’s a collaboration every time. We want to build long-term relationships.”
By 2018, Ekro, a VanDrie Group subsidiary, became the first European veal slaughterhouse approved to export veal products to China following a 17-year negotiating process. The company received approval to ship boneless veal products initially with China remaining open to expanding its imports of Dutch veal.
The US also is an important market for raw intact veal products because so many Americans are of European descent. VanDrie exports 60 percent of its product to countries worldwide with key markets in France, Italy and Germany.
“The French and the Italians really know how to cook and to love food,” Everts says, “and veal is a very important product within Italian and French cuisine. But we would really like to expand our span of marketing.”
The Dutch veal industry wants to form new partnerships outside of its traditional export markets as consumer tastes in Europe evolve.
Veal is an excellent source of protein – 100 grams of veal contains of 22.1 grams of protein. The meat is very lean and low in cholesterol compared to other animal proteins. One gram of veal consists of 120 mcg of vitamin B12. And it’s a good source of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Veal also is very easy to digest which makes it a good food for babies and the elderly.
But in a country that produces large quantities of a product with an impressive nutrition profile, consumption of veal is roughly 1.7 kg per capita per year in the Netherlands. Roughly 95 percent of Dutch veal products are exported.
A 2012 EU report on veal and young cattle marketing trends touched on how the phenomenon is playing out in France where veal consumption has been steadily decreasing. The report states that average veal consumption was 3.8 kg (carcass weight) per capita in 2012, 27 percent less compared with 2000. Driving the trend is declining purchasing power and changing meat buying habits among younger consumers that did not grow up eating veal.
Also, veal is marketed as a high-end product and ranks among the most expensive meats in France, alongside lamb, the EU reported. Between 2008 and 2013, retail prices for veal increased by 7 percent and by 51 percent in 22 years. Organ meat and sweetbreads command premium prices.
“Back in the day, we didn’t eat any of the byproducts like the liver or the sweetbreads,” Everts notes, “and we now see that we can market those products for a very high price. Where it was waste back in the day, it’s now a high-value product – and also very delicious.”