Veal Farmers of Ontario’s contest celebrating great veal sandwiches has helped promote veal, but it has also revealed the level of non-veal meat passed off as veal.
The organization has cancelled this year’s Ontario’s Best Veal Sandwich due to the closure of most restaurants in the province due to COVID-19.
Before the organization had to cancel the contest, at the VFO annual meeting in Stratford on March 11, attendees learned that the successful promotion was going to go head with so-called “mystery shoppers” contracted to try out each sandwich.
In past years VFO Executive Director Jennifer Haley has typically conscripted another VFO staffer to visit all the nominees and try the sandwiches.
“The most I had in one day last year was four,” she said to the AGM attendees. “I’m not sure what the kids had for supper that night because I was pretty much in a coma when I got home.”
Those visits did, however, provide Haley with an opportunity to speak with the restaurateurs and learn now they obtained their veal. She also encouraged them to try other cuts of veal in their menu. On more than one occasion, for example, chefs were surprised to learn that ground veal might be a tasty possibility for a meatball sandwich.
There were also times, though, when it was Haley who was in for the surprise. Not all sandwiches were made with Canadian veal. In some cases, they weren’t made with veal at all.
“There’s a big difference when you eat a veal parmesan sandwich that actually comes from a beef cut,” she said. Often a major advance clue was price: “If you’re purchasing a $5 veal sandwich versus a $12.99 veal sandwich, you’re probably not getting veal. It’s just the economics.”
Haley outlined the inconsistencies in a recent article she wrote for the magazine of the Ontario Independent Meat Processors. In the article, she reported that VFO is preparing a new series of promotional materials for both restaurants and restaurant suppliers, aimed at reinforcing “the importance of sourcing quality Ontario veal for their customers.”
During her visits to best veal sandwich nominees, “the depth and breadth of food fraud was revealed,” she wrote in the article. “Many sandwiches being sold as veal were an inferior product, creating a false (and often poor) perception of the quality, tenderness and taste of Ontario veal.”
Speaking at the AGM, Haley said it’s somewhat understandable. “There’s a lot of middle men between you, the producer, and the restaurant or the chef.” She added VFO does verify that the sandwich being nominated for the contest does actually use Canadian veal.
“We’ve disqualified restaurants if they don’t have Canadian veal. We’ve disqualified them if they don’t have veal at all.”
Haley’s article wasn’t all negative. “Ultimately, the goal (of the contest) was to sell more veal and that’s exactly what happened,” she wrote, adding competing restaurants used the promotional material that accompanied their participation to attract “new customers who wanted to judge the sandwich for themselves.”
Haley also noted that the nominated restaurants are very often multi-generational, family-run businesses – just like many VFO member farms.
But the existence of incorrectly – or fraudulently – identified veal menu items was certainly an eye-opener.
“We’ve got to put an end to this,” she said. Because of its possible effect on the public’s perception of veal quality, “this is something that we’ve got to be aware of. And, if we didn’t do the contest, we probably wouldn’t be aware.”
Celebrity spokesperson John Catucci had been retained to try the semifinalists’ entries, and from there three finalists were to be chosen. These three would have come to a contest finale in Toronto to prepare their sandwiches.
Catucci is host of You Gotta Eat Here! and the new Big Food Bucket List on Food Network Canada.