Until the Neolithic era, the new Stone Age (six thousand years ago), European people were hunters. They lived on everything nature had to offer them. If they found berries, they ate berries. If a rabbit crossed their path, they ate rabbit. They lived as nomads, without roofs over their heads, following the wild herds along endless cattle routes. Without the invention of the wheel, these nomadic tribes had little need for belongings. Later, in the new Stone Age, man’s behaviour changed. They discovered the advantages of planting vegetation and protecting it from wild animals. They realised that keeping a group of animals safe inside a pen, meant there was little need for hunting, and by building roofs over their heads, they soon created man’s first farms. Crops were soon being cultivated and harvests were increasing, whilst the animals that were once wild, were becoming domesticated. Initially, the first farmers would have worked hard to provide for their own individual families and would have traded, almost certainly, with craftsman specialised in skills such as pottery. By the beginning of the Roman Empire, this had started to change. Roman Roads throughout Europe were built for transferring troops as well as providing an essential supply line to Rome for goods and raw materials, such as grain from Egypt, salt from Brittany, pigs and geese from Flanders and wine from Languedoc. Then by the time the Roman Empire had fallen, very little was left, and anything resembling an emerging economy was farfetched, until the medieval towns and cities of Europe started to develop.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the invention of the steam engine marked the onset of an industrial revolution. Smallholders and farm labourers migrated en masse for work in the new factories of the towns and cities. Only the strongest of farms remained, and were forced to produce crops for millions of consumers, predominantly potatoes and rye. The countryside was deserted. Throughout a large part of the nineteenth century, meat and dairy products were considered luxury goods, which were available to only a small percentage of the upper classes. Starvation amongst the masses was rife; the worst case being the potato famine of 1845 - 1849 when potato harvests were ruined by blight. People were reduced to eating seed potatoes, and in Ireland, only people strong enough to withstand the journey, fled by boat to America. In other countries, charitable institutions did their best to prevent children from starving, by providing them with as much additional food as they could.
The beginning of the twentieth century was the start of a new era and in many parts of Europe, starvation was a thing of the past. In the Netherlands, this new era was heralded by the Amsterdam Exhibition of Food and Cookery, held in 1887, fully-equipped with ultra-modern electric lighting. The organisers hoped that their initiative would help contribute to the welfare, health, happiness and prosperity of the nation’s households. Visitors were introduced to a variety of goods, many of which were foreign to them at that time: mussels, oysters, cakes made using steam engines, waffles, hot chocolate, mineral water, milk, wine from the Rhine region in Germany, tea, bread made with equipment on show at the exhibition, preservatives from all over the world, meat extracts, fruit extracts, biscuits and much, much more. The products on show at the exhibition were still unavailable to the general public, but they offered a promise of things to come. Thanks to the introduction of fertilisers and their assistance in the cultivation of large expanses of unfertile land, people hoped for an increase in food production. With hindsight, we know that this promising time was to be short-lived, with an imminent world war followed by an uncompromising crisis, and a second world war. When it came to prosperity, the light at the end of the tunnel was a long way off, hovering quite timidly on an endless horizon. Throughout history, people had been suffering from starvation, interspersed with the occasional promise of better times ahead. This is true of the political situation in Europe just after the Second Word War, with the development of an emergent veal industry waiting in the wings.
Post-Second World War Europe wanted to avoid any more food shortages and therefore needed a policy that was coupled with increased production. Up until that point, most farmers had adopted polyculture, which was a mixed business of producing a little bit of everything: a couple of cows, a few pigs, a hectare of grain, a vegetable garden and a horse-drawn, donkey-drawn or ox-drawn cart. Then came the introduction of agricultural mechanisation, and with it, dramatic changes in farming and the development of a modern food industry. The question we should ask is, where we might find the foundations of the modern veal industry? Undoubtedly, in the newly-created European
Commission’s plans for the modernisation of agriculture introduced in 1958 by the minister of agriculture Sicco Mansholt. This common agricultural policy with financial subsidies was intended as an instrument for providing farmers with a steady income. Simultaneously, the retail sector underwent considerable changes in a very short time, as did the food and beverage industry. An explosive growth in population after the war (the baby boom), and the increasing strength of this generation’s buying power by the 1960s, caused a corresponding spike in demand. The old image of the thousands of small dairy factories collecting one, two or maybe three milk churns from a large number of dairy farms every single day of the week, soon disappeared. As did the thousands of small cheesemakers who sold their produce to the local grocers. The traditional way of buying groceries was changing too. The demographics (in this case for my native country, the Netherlands,) and corresponding numbers of cows explain this change in demand and supply quite clearly. In the year 1900, the population had reached roughly five million, with a corresponding number of cows at under one million. This changed very little up until the Second World War. Then in 1951, the numbers of cows rose to one and a half million and the population to ten million. Thirty years later, the population had grown to fourteen million people and ten million cows. That corresponds to almost one cow per person! As nature dictates, after every cow came at least one calf, with cows needing to go through pregnancy and birth in order to produce milk. Or in dairy farmers’ terms: an increased need for animals that produced calves and therefore milk. In other words heifers, and not bulls. So what happened to all the male calves?
According to the Bible, the fatted calf was a symbol of lavishness, and for a calf to grow, it needs lots of milk, making it an expensive product. In the centuries that followed, calves would have been slaughtered every 2 to 3 weeks to provide a small supply of meat for the farmer’s family with the lion’s share destined for the butcher. The male calves headed for the butcher’s, would have been given extra-special treatment. In French Normandy for example, where they were known as Palais Royal, i.e. good enough for the Royal Palace, these calves would have been fed ten eggs a day. Other calves in the very same region of France would have been spoilt with biscuits dipped in milk or allowed to graze on the pastures well into autumn. Their meat would have been dark in colour and known in France as broutard. During the nineteenth century, parts of the Netherlands produced a special breed of calf called the milk-fed calf. These animals were shut into narrow crates with very little room to move, and were often muzzled so that they could not eat anything other than milk: whole milk. The niche for these calves was small, but it was extremely lucrative. Having said that, it was small-scale production that did not yet count as an industry. These calves were still considered by-products of the developing dairy industry and occasionally a welcome alternative when cheese prices were low.
Why don’t we discuss cheese for a moment? Cheese is made by transforming milk into curds and whey, and for the cheesemaker, the curd is the most important part. Consequently, there is little use for the large quantities of whey the industry produces. Up until the Second World War, mixed farms used the whey as pig feed (pigs love it), but when the cheese industry started to boom, there was more whey than the dairy farmers knew what to do with. What did they do? They dumped it into nearby waterways and spread it on their fields. After all, life was looking up and very few people were interested in the environment. Another dairy product is butter, and in order to make a kilogram of butter, you need 25 litres of milk. The by-product in this process, is skimmed milk, which back in post-war Europe, was turned into powder because it did not store or transport well as a liquid. Here, we can ask ourselves the same question: what was done with all that skimmed milk powder? Not much is the answer. To conclude then, the explosion of the demand for milk, the increased number of dairy cows and the arrival of a dairy industry, were responsible for the creation of three new by-products; by-products in such considerable quantities, that they were more of less useless: the male calf, whey and skimmed milk powder.
Retrospectively, it would appear that a number of companies were working on a solution to this problem at the same time. One of these being the Dutch company Denkavit, which came up with a brilliant idea to combine the whey and the skimmed milk as ingredients for formula milk for feeding the male calves. This subsequently transformed all three by-products into one valuable entity: the formula-fed calf; killing three birds with one stone.