Thursday, August 29, 2013

Is veal white, pink, or red?

This is the big question of the week in Switzerland, as on the first of September the new law for the humane treatment of calves enters into effect.

When I was in the third school year, our teacher Egidio Bernasconi took us to visit the stable of our classmate Rita Spizzi. Her father was in charge of food at the private clinic Moncucco in Coremmo, just behind our school building. Besides the large vegetable garden, he also had half a dozen cows, and that was the topic of the lesson.

We learned about agribusiness. In the self-sustenance times, a farmer in the Prealps would have one or two cows to provide the proteins for his family. Spizzi's operation was larger, because it had to sustain a clinic instead of just a family.

A cow's main product was its milk, which had a shelf life of only a couple of days. The cream would be skimmed off and cultured for a few days to make butter, which had about a week of shelf life. The excess milk would be used to make yogurt, which had a longer shelf life. When there was a lot of excess milk, it would be used to make cheese, which depending on the type could last for a whole season.

When a cow would no longer produce milk due to her age, Mr. Spizzi would sell her to the slaughterhouse. This explains why the typical beef dish of the region is brasato: the meat had to be stewed for hours in a red wine sauce because it was very tough, coming from old cows.

Mr. Spizzi always needed enough cows to feed the patients and staff. Every spring he would walk his cows to the outskirts of town to visit a bull. Half of the off-spring would be female, and that was good, because Mr. Spizzi could select one to raise to replace the next old cow; the other cows would be raised to be sold at the fair. This is why Mr. Spizzi spend a little more money to use a select bull, as its offspring would fetch a higher price at the market.

For the male offspring there was not much use, because only few bulls are required. Mr. Spizzi would keep them as long as they can live on their mother's milk, then sell them to the slaughterhouse. Because these calves were young and milk-fed, their meat was whitish. By the way, this is why in the Insubrian culture the fancy meat is veal scaloppine.

This was a long time ago and in modern agribusiness a farmer has an order of magnitude more cows. Also, much progress has been made in cattle feed, so the farmer can make more money by feeding his calves for a longer time, yielding more meat.

This is where the animal protection groups come in and the new law for veal comes into play. When the calves are kept alive for a longer time, they would naturally eat hay and grass, roaming on the Alps. Their meat would become reddish. Although taste and nutritional value are the same, for centuries people have known that the whiter the veal, the more it was tender. Before the new law, a farmer would have been paid less per kilo if the veal was redder.

To keep the veal whiter, the contemporary farmer would keep his animals on milk and indoors, but this means that the calves are anemic and therefore tortured.

The current debate is on whether veal should be red, pink, or white. This is where color science comes into play. Instead of using color terms, the experts want to sound more authoritative by using numbers rather than words. Instead of red, pink, white, they use 38, 42, 48. They never mention a unit, so what are these numbers? Is there a new redness scale?

It turns out that the new law also introduces a new standardized method to determine the color of veal. The carcass is measured at a specified location near the shoulder with a Minolta colorimeter. The first number on the colorimeter is the color number for the carcass.

Zooming in on the pictures reveals that the colorimeter is displaying CIELAB data, so the first number is L*. Therefore, what the gastronome takes for red, pink, white, a color scientist would take for dark, medium, light.

Newspaper article on the debate (in German): Kalbfleisch-Knatsch in der Fleischbranche.