The BBC’s John Simpson has exposed his bovine ignorance

Beau Lucy was hit by a police car
Beau Lucy was hit by a police car - Steve Reigate

If you are a broadcaster whose career has been spent reporting on the world’s war zones and trouble spots, a calf being hit by a police car may look like small beer. Even so, as a meat eater, I take issue with John Simpson’s comment that it is “illogical” to object to such treatment of the poor animal, while still being prepared to tuck into roast beef on a Sunday.

In Britain, pains are taken to ensure that animals are slaughtered humanely. Admittedly there are few local abattoirs due to the cost of the vets who are required, under our excessively bureaucratic system, to attend them. This means that sheep and cattle have to travel long distances on their last journey, causing stress that could otherwise have been avoided – if nothing else, bad for the taste of the meat. Still, the presence of vets is itself evidence of the care that society expects to be taken over slaughter. The creatures don’t meet their ends by being rammed by fast-moving vehicles.

Nor is unnecessary suffering tolerated in other aspects of husbandry. This is contentious to vegans, who have recently begun a poster campaign in the London tube to highlight the fate of “bobby” (male) calves in dairy farming. They are generally surplus to requirements and are therefore killed.

If you believe, as they do, that taking the life of any animal in order to feed humans is wrong, this is an open and shut case. Personally, I would rather these calves were reared for longer, because to kill them so young disrespects life. It is an also an obvious waste. Better that they should be reared for longer and then eaten as veal.

But then the market for veal in this country is limited, when it is eaten the meat is “ruby” (pinkish) rather than white. White veal is what our Continental neighbours like in their Weiner schnitzel and blanquette de veau, with veal farms in France and Italy producing nearly 4 million calves for the table each year. Here we rightly expect calves to be given more space and feed than in the EU, and the RSPCA opposes the export of live animals. What are dairy farmers to do?

The problem is an inevitable consequence of drinking milk. Although consumption per capita has dropped, 98.5 per cent of UK households still buy milk to drink, so nearly all of us are complicit in this system. The best solution would be for consumers to develop a taste for ruby veal but this stubbornly hasn’t happened. Besides, government figures show that Britons are eating less meat now than at any time since records began.

There is, as Simpson would say, an illogicality here, or perhaps more than one. The food chain is rusty in places. It doesn’t help that there is so little money in it for farmers. Those who struggle to keep going cannot invest in the most efficient systems, which also provide the best welfare.

My surprise was that a calf should have been loose on roads near Heathrow Airport in the first place. As a romantic, I like to see cows in the fields. This one – Beau Lucy – escaped from common grazing land on Staines Moor by swimming across a river, suggesting material for the makers of Chicken Run. It then became spooked.

The farmer in charge of the calf is understandably keeping a low profile, but presumably his operation is small. Large farms – which have become more common as the dairy industry consolidates due to low cost of milk – allow their cows to eat delicious grass, but it will have been quite possibly cut elsewhere and brought to them by the agricultural equivalent of Deliveroo. It saddens me that this should be so. But a cow is something of a couch potato. As long as she is in the company of a social group, kept dry and well-fed, she may be a lot happier than if trudging around a muddy field in the rain.

What the incident of Beau Lucy – and Simpson’s reflection on it – really demonstrates is the disconnect between urban life and the source of our food. Once, there would always have been people around who knew how to deal with a stray cow, but that’s no longer the case. Britain has not yet been reduced to the industrial methods of beef production practiced in the US, but premium brands using humane cattle-raising methods are expensive. The ultimate illogicality of the food system is to expect the highest standards on the farm while paying the least possible at the checkout.

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