Beef Producers Tout Veal's Charms

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Veal producers who worried their meat was bound to go the way of once-fashionable dishes like turtle soup say the future's suddenly looking brighter for the embattled protein.

The veal industry, which made a point of being omnipresent at the 2011 Meat Conference held in Dallas this week, is in the final stage of a three-year strategy to remake the image of veal and cultivate new customers. Industry leaders report their efforts are paying off.

According to Dean Conklin, executive director of veal marketing for the National Cattleman's Beef Association, 10 major restaurant chains and 880 independent restaurants added veal to their menus last year. Supermarkets have also been stepping up efforts to sell veal, enthusiastically participating in a Columbus Day tie-in Conklin characterized as "the largest veal promotion we've ever done."

But Conklin says the veal story his trade group is trying to tell doesn't pivot on veal parmigiana, pushed as the holiday's "official dish." To persuade consumers that veal isn't expensive or hard to prepare, the Beef Association is using online tools to promote veal sliders for tailgate parties and veal tacos for Cinco de Mayo.

"We always thought our demographic was dying," Tom Houlton, a veal industry consultant explains. "But the demographics are changing."

"It's not just the Northeast," Conklin adds. "Our consumer today is a regular person who loves protein. They really like variety."

The goal of the three-year plan is to grow the market segment that reports eating veal fewer than once a week, a category that includes 41 percent of American eaters. Another 50 percent of eaters say they "never use veal." Many of those eaters were presumably turned off by documented incidents of inhumane treatment of animals at veal facilities.

While the Beef Association can't require compliance from veal producers, it's drafted a "Veal Quality Assurance" pledge outlining "ethical standards and code of conduct for the U.S. Veal Industry." According to the document, veal producers "have an ethical obligation to provide appropriate care for our animals at every stage of life."

Over the past two years, Houtlon says, nearly half of veal producers have converted their barns to accommodate group housing, eliminating the controversial hutches designed to keep young bulls immobile. Houlton expects the number to rise further as producers acquire the capital needed to execute such a costly renovation project. The resisters are starting to understand their calves will be harder to sell in the current market, he says.

According to Houlton, a major food distributor has requested its veal be packed in boxes labeled to indicate the veal was raised in group housing.

"Consumers are starting to understand we're raising veal differently," he says. "Veal's becoming in vogue."

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