The Dutch veal industry sets its sights on export
At the end of last November, the Dutch Meat Industry Association (COV – Centrale Organisatie voor den Vleessector) and Dutch veal producers sponsored a familiarization trip to The Netherlands for North American food industry journalists. Grocery Business was on hand for a close look at how the Dutch do veal, an update on the “Trusted Veal from Europe” campaign, launched in 2018 – and an advance perspective on what might be in store for North America when it comes to high-quality veal exports from Europe.
The Netherlands has a large, thriving veal industry, with around 2000 veal producers. Part of the reason for the veal industry’s success is the fact that the country already has a massive dairy industry which requires a constant input of female calves but has no need for male ones.
Attendees saw the Dutch veal product chain firsthand as guests of the VanDrie Group, the world leader in the veal market. Stops on the tour included the farms where veal calves are raised, specialized feed production, the care and transportation of the animals, a slaughterhouse and a tannery where calf skins are made into high-quality leather. Along the way they were treated to a sampling of veal dishes, culminating in a “Trusted Veal Workshop” in Amsterdam where Dutch chef Edgar Bührs and his brother Michel gave a virtuoso demonstration of the many ways veal can be prepared to make the most of its natural flavours, tenderness, and superior health and nutritional qualities.
VanDrie Group accounts for 30 per cent of veal production in The Netherlands. Consisting of a network of 26 companies, VanDrie employs more than 2300 directly, and approximately 5000 indirectly. It’s a completely integrated operation; member companies cover the product chain from the production of feed (roughage, muesli and milk replacers) and the acquisition and transportation of veal calves through to slaughter, meat processing, and marketing and promotion. The company has some 1600 calf husbandry operations under its direct control. Annual turnover is €2.14 billion (Cdn$3.1 billion).
In addition to supplying basic cuts to the foodservice and hospitality industries, VanDrie companies also prepare and package veal and veal-based products for retail sale. In France, the Brittany-based Tendriade is a market leader in consumer products, and “Finesse de Veau,” one of the VanDrie Group’s leading consumer brands, is sold in grocery stores throughout France.
Across the Atlantic
The vast majority of Dutch veal – around 95 per cent – is exported, primarily to other countries in Europe. The same percentage applies to the VanDrie Group, which exports primarily to Italy, Germany and France, but in recent years has opened up new markets in North America and Asia.
Exports to North America started in 2016, says Marijke Everts, VanDrie Group’s director of corporate affairs. “The US and Canada are still quite new for us. We find it takes about five years to get a position in a new market, to get to know the customers and clients.” The launch took more than a decade of preparatory work, as the process is fraught with hurdles, many of them political. (VanDrie’s launch in China took 17 years of preparatory work.)
Exports to Canada account for somewhere around one per cent of VanDrie’s production, Everts says. Most of that goes to Quebec and Ontario, the largest markets and the most receptive to veal. The main exports to North America are milk-fed veal and veal produced under VanDrie Group’s premium Peter’s Farm brand. Everts says the CETA trade agreement between Canada and Europe, which began to come into effect in 2017, has helped to level the playing field for both countries and make exporting easier.
“Our future plans for Canada are based on improving the Canadian meat category with a complementary Dutch veal product that meets the high requirements of the Canadian consumer with a consistent high quality and safe product,” Everts says. The company is currently focused on strengthening relationships with its Canadian importers.
The “Trusted Veal from Europe” campaign, funded by the European Union and executed by COV, got underway in 2018 to, as Everts says, ‘raise awareness about veal as a traditional, safe, and reliable meat option,’ specifically in Canada, the U.S. and Japan. It seeks to raise the profile of European veal internationally, showcasing veal’s nutritional and aesthetic virtues and demonstrating how the industry continues to enhance its product quality processes and invest in animal welfare.
Veal has all nine of the essential amino acids – the ones that the human body doesn’t produce – as well as Vitamin B12 and Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Veal is very low in cholesterol and every 100 grams contains 22.1 grams of protein. The digestive qualities of the product are such that the VanDrie Group is actually a big supplier to companies that produce specialized food for infants and the elderly.
VanDrie has also been working to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising veal. Between 2007 and 2018, it cut its antibiotics use by 58 per cent. It has also developed an ISO 22000 based track and trace system called Safety Guard that enables the company and its customers to know the history behind every cut of meat that moves through its supply chain.
“Safety Guard is unique in the world because we can trace everything back from the starting ingredient to the customer’s fork,” Everts says. By Dutch law, every calf is given two ear tags in the first three days of its life. The tags contain each individual animal’s individual ID code and, as Everts says, “they register everything – the calf’s mother, the dairy farm where it was born, the ingredients in its feed every day of its life.”
The track and trace capability doesn’t end with slaughter – customers can trace any cut of meat back to the calf it came from and access any information they need. Safety Guard also includes an Animal Welfare Code.
“With Safety Guard, we’re able to guarantee a high-quality product with the highest level of traceability, animal welfare and food safety,” Everts says.
“Animal welfare is a big thing in Holland,” says Jos Goebbels, president of COV. “That focus has been driven directly by the concern of the citizens.” He points out that the Dutch meat industry actually performs above government standards for animal welfare.
As one example, the VanDrie Group collaborated with the Dutch Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to move from box housing to group housing of its veal calves. Today, three to five calves are housed together in larger enclosures where they have room to move around and lie down. When they get a bit bigger they are moved into larger enclosures that house around two dozen, again with room to move around and lie down – and even to play with a large ball suspended from the ceiling.
Since 2009, the Dutch Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has issued its Better Life (Beter Leven) hallmark to VanDrie’s veal. The Society has given the company a star rating to signify that its calves receive an amount of fibre-rich roughage in their diet that is well above European standards. The higher amount of roughage promotes higher haemoglobin values, good digestion and species-specific behaviours such as chewing the cud.
The Society also has strict limits on the distances calves can be transported to the farms where they’re raised, and even more stringent limits on how far they can be transported for slaughter. VanDrie has developed its own line of “Comfort Class” trucks specially designed to transport its veal calves. The trucks are temperature controlled, monitored by camera, have extra suspension and enable calves to drink water during transport.
Part of animal welfare is a commitment to virtually zero wastage; everything is used, including the manure, the bone, the skin – even the blood, which the pharmaceutical industry can use as a valuable element in human heart medications.
“That’s what’s unique about our product,” Everts says. “It’s delicious, it fits into a sustainable and healthy diet, and it’s produced in a sustainable way.”
* Smaak – Dutch for “taste” or “flavour”