Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Grass-fed bison finds wide popularity with health conscious consumers

Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Grass-fed bison finds wide popularity with health conscious consumers https://wahospitality.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/bisonburger750-752x198.jpg

By Paul Schlienz

There was a time within recent memory when it was unusual to find bison on restaurant menus outside of the Rocky Mountains or Great Plains states. This is no longer the case.

Bison is showing up on menus throughout the country in places far removed from the wide open spaces where the buffalo still roam.

Health conscious consumers are playing an important role in bison meat’s rise in popularity. Grass-fed bison, indeed, has fewer calories, less cholesterol or fat than beef.

According to the National Bison Association, approximately 60,000 bison were slaughtered for meat in the U.S. during the past year.

Bison’s growing popularity is part of a bigger trend toward organic foods. In addition to its perceived health benefits, demand for grass-fed meat like bison points toward a rejection of the factory-farming methods that produce most of the protein consumed by Americans.

“The consumer today doesn’t trust the food industry,” Roger Gerber, CEO of Blackwing Quality Meats, a U.S. distributor of bison meat, told Bloomberg. “They can feel comfortable to know it doesn’t have hormones, it doesn’t have antibiotics.”

A 6-ounce (170-gram) bison filet, for example, is less than 200 calories. Bison is one-third less fatty than beef. In typical 100 gram servings, cooked bison includes approximately 3-grams of fat. In contrast, cooked beef has around 10.-grams of fat.

And since bison spend most of their time grazing on grass, they are free of steroids or chemical residue, according to the Canadian Bison Association.

Although bison meat’s cost nearly doubled since 2010, consumer demand hasn’t dropped. After all, the cost of other forms of protein, like pork and beef, also spiked.

“People have kind of gotten used to the prices and are willing to pay a little bit more,” Dave Carter, executive director of the Westminster, Colo.-based National Bison Association, told the Grand Forks Herald.

Nevertheless, bison’s health benefits do come with a considerable cost. Not atypical is L and M Meats, a Grand Forks, N.D., retailer that sells ground bison for $9.69 a pound. By contrast, beef goes for merely $4.99 per pound at L and M.

According to U.S. government data, ribeye bison steaks rose 17 percent to an average of $31.76 a pound in August in comparison to its July price, more than three times higher than the retail price of a boneless beef ribeye.

Another cost is the diminishing number of bison as a result of their growing popularity.

More than 30 million bison once roamed the North American wilds, according to the National Bison Association. These creatures were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1800s. As a result, their numbers ultimately dwindled to less than 1,000. By the 1970s, however, through what can only be described as a major conservation success story, the North American bison population’s numbers increased to the point that the animals could once again be sold for meat.

Nevertheless, current herd size is estimated at less than 350,000 – nowhere near the millions of bison that existed in North America before the mass slaughter of the 19th Century.

“There’s probably less buffalo in this country than there was 50 years ago,” Doug Earl, a North Dakota bison rancher told the Grand Forks Herald.

Also pushing up the price of bison are the same drought conditions that have reduced U.S. cattle supply. U.S. ranchers, the world’s biggest source for bison meat, held 162,110 head in 2012. This was down 18 percent from 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The U.S. has doubled its imports of boneless bison meat from Canada since 2014. Unfortunately, however, in Canada, dry conditions in Alberta and a decline in the number of ranchers that produce bison are crimping that supply, too, according to the National Bison Association.

Supplies will probably remain tight for the next two years since it can take five years to increase herd sizes although bison ranchers are considering expanding production since prices increased.

“All indicators are that this will probably continue for a while,” Ken Overby, a Manitoba bison rancher, told Bloomberg.

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