One of the traits that has made human beings such a successful species is our ability to eat just about anything. However, with the advent of supermarkets, the carnivorous part of Americans' diet has been narrowed to the holy trinity of proteins: beef, chicken and pork. Julia Child may have been happily chopping away at eel and venison, but most Americans just stuck with hamburger. Until recently, that is.
"Bison is the new turkey," says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, based in Westminster, Colo. "During the holidays especially, people want to do something fancy, and instead of a turkey they bring out a bison filet."
The bison industry saw 21 percent growth in 2006 and 17 percent growth in 2005, according to the NBA, but bison is not the only alternative protein experiencing a renaissance. Robyn Nick, director of communications and cause marketing for Coleman Natural Foods of Denver, said she expects to see sales of lamb pick up over the next five years. Recently, most of the lamb sold in the United States has been imported from New Zealand or Australia; however, both those countries are suffering from a drought, and Nick expects that domestic lamb will now have a chance in the market.
To get fresh venison or elk, consumers used to have to know how to hunt. Now, deer and elk farms dot the country. In short, we are beginning to see more diversity in the meat aisle.
According to Carter, it was "the foodies" who led the way with bison. In the 1990s, gourmets started to be interested in the rich, gamey flavor of bison meat, so chefs began to compete for the prime cuts like tenderloin. However, that meant producers had freezers full of chucks and rounds, the less exotic cuts, and the industry collapsed. In 2003, thanks to some clever marketing, the bison industry began to recover and started selling more bison and more parts of the bison.
"The demographic that is interested in bison is very much the same demographic that shops at natural food stores," Carter says.
Consumers are interested in alternative meats like elk, venison and bison for three reasons, according to several industry insiders. First, they are looking for new, adventurous flavors. The taste of these meats is often described as "gamey," which is not very helpful to those who have never tasted wild game before.
According to Carter, people who try bison for the first time often describe the taste as "stronger" than beef—which means it's wonderful for setting off rich sauces and heartier wines, Carter says.
Secondly, alternative meats often are produced more naturally and in a more environmentally friendly manner. For bison, it is illegal to use hormones in raising the animals. People who are looking for meat without antibiotics, hormones or unnatural feeding processes can safely look to bison for these qualities. Also, bison, elk and deer, unlike cattle, developed harmoniously with the North American environment, so their impact on the land they graze is actually beneficial. The winter of 2006-'07 proved the benefits of ranching bison, when blizzards in Colorado threatened the lives of thousands of cattle, but bison were unharmed. Carter explains that bison are able to use their strong necks and broad heads to "plow" down to fodder under the snow, and they know to eat snow for hydration. Bison will also walk into a storm against the wind, knowing that direction will bring them out of the other side of the storm. Their thick wooly coats also offer better protection against a plains snowstorm.
Finally, bison, elk and venison are the original healthy meats. Low in fat and bad cholesterol, they are high in protein and iron. The same cannot be said for lamb, but lamb does not have the marbling of fat that beef does, so it is possible to simply cut away the fat.
It has become increasingly easy to find lamb that has been raised without antibiotics or hormones. Many of the farms that raise lambs naturally feed them grass for the first part of their lives and then finish them in a feed lot before butchering. The finishing rids the meat of a gamey taste that some consumers don't find desirable in lamb.
Alternative meats may become more common in natural foods stores, but customers may still need a little convincing before they try them.
"Ground meat is a good entry point," Carter says. "It's less intimidating, and people know how to cook it." The price of ground meat is also encouraging.
Nick suggests keeping all of the naturally raised meats in one section, apart from the conventionally raised meat. She also says that some companies, like Coleman, offer retailers point-of-sale items like dividers, shelf talkers and brochures that can ease consumers' apprehensions. And if you carry brands that consumers are already familiar with, they'll be more likely to branch out and try different types of meat within that brand.
Rudy Mazzeo, owner of Mazzeo's Meat Center, which is part of a natural food store in Great Barrington, Mass., says that often people will try something new when they have an interesting-sounding recipe. A good time to publish recipes is during the holidays.
"During Easter, lamb is huge," he says.
All of the alternative meats see a spike in sales around the December holidays and in the grilling season, Mazzeo says.
Carter, Nick and Mazzeo agree that the way to keep customers coming back for more is to teach them how to cook the meat. Natural meats cook up to a third faster because they hold water better than conventional meat and their lower fat content provides less insulation against high temperatures. If consumers try to cook an elk steak the same way they cook a beefsteak, they'll end up with a dry, stringy dinner. To prevent this, make sure to provide instructions specific to the cut and the meat. For instance, lamb shoulder and shanks are delicious and tender in stews and curries, but would not be very tasty if cooked quickly.
It also helps if retailers communicate directly with consumers and "take advantage of the story," Carter says. In the case of bison, they were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, but have since made a strong comeback—from about 35,000 bison in the mid-1960s to about 500,000 in North America today. "Bison is a meat with a wonderful story behind it," Carter says. And all of these meats represent a way of conserving open grazing land and natural lifestyles for animals.
Hope Bentley is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 72, 74