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From The Times of Trenton, July 9, 2002

Veal: Not the taste of elegance


Debates over the rights of animals can sometimes divert us from our simplest duties of kindness to animals, which, in practice, are more readily agreed upon and translated into law. A case in point is a bill proposed in the New Jersey Assembly to give a break to veal calves, the lowliest of all farm animals raised for the least essential of all our meats.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, and Sen. Wayne Bryant, D-Camden, the bill requires "that calves be raised unchained or tethered in an enclosure of sufficient size to allow the calf to move and groom itself, and be fed a diet sufficient to prevent anemia or impairment of the digestive tract." Should the bill become law, calves may still be raised for veal. They just can't be denied their basic nutrition, or chained inside crates for all of their brief time on Earth.

There are hard cases in animal welfare, but veal is not one of them. Under current practices, a veal calf is by definition a sick, deliberately malnourished animal. To create what Veal USA, the industry's trade group, calls "the taste of elegance," the creatures are denied maternal care, the iron and fiber ruminant animals crave, the company of other animals, free movement (to prevent muscle growth) and even straw to lie on in their miserable little crates lest the merest scrap of roughage mar the "velvety smooth succulence" of the meat.

Veal USA faults proponents of the bill for misguided sentimentality toward calves, as if the afflictions of these animals are somehow beneath the attention of serious minds. The industry and its customers would do better to examine the sentimentality they themselves lavish upon a luxury food item.

No mere food, says the trade group, veal is "the epitome of refinement and taste _ gracefully surrendering its subtle yet distinctive flavor to the most creative and savory seasonings without ever being overpowered. But don't feel guilty about indulging."

It looks a lot less refined and graceful on the production end, and most of us need not worry about feeling guilty because we do not eat veal -- as witness a recent Zogby poll reporting that 85 percent of New Jersey citizens disapprove of veal farming. America's two-thirds decline in veal consumption over the last generation reveals the same public repudiation of the industry. Veal, and the pitiful images we associate with the product, mark exactly that point in the public mind where unavoidable hardship in livestock farming becomes inexcusable cruelty.

Veal producers view themselves as persecuted, unfairly singled out for public reproach and, in a way, this complaint is justified. Fowl like those in New Jersey's ISE America facility are stuffed into sheds by the hundreds of thousands. Millions of creatures in our mass-confinement hog farms live the life of veal calves, never feeling soil, sunshine, or the least measure of human charity. A reckless, unyielding spirit has spread across our farms, forgetting that before animals are production units, before they are commodities, they are living creatures with needs and natures of their own.

America's 750,000 or so veal calves slaughtered every year are numerically a small part of the problem, yet symbolize perfectly the factory- farm mindset that any human desire, however frivolous, trumps any animal need, however fundamental. "Calves are adorable," as columnist David Plotz expressed it in Slate magazine, "but veal is delicious. God gave man dominion over the beasts of the Earth (and) if any animal has economic utility, we should farm it."

Actually, if we are going to get pious about it, God gave us lots of things, and one of them is conscience. Veal, no matter what seasonings cover it, or what sanctimony defends it, does not carry the "taste of elegance." Veal carries, as Alice Walker observes, "the taste of a bitter life."

Veal USA cautions that the Weinberg-Bryant law would have little effect in New Jersey and is intended rather as a "steppingstone" to larger reforms elsewhere. This suspicion, too, is well-founded and let us hope it happens just that way: The General Assembly setting a standard of decent animal husbandry for other states to follow.

Do the calves have a right to be spared their miseries? It is enough to know that we have a duty to be lenient, granting even these creatures the little mercies that only human beings can bring into the world.

Matthew Scully, a former New Jersey resident, served from January 2001 until this month as special assistant and senior speech writer to President George W. Bush. He is a former literary editor of National Review and author of the forthcoming "Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy."