The US bison industry is hoping to convince consumers, who are giving up red meat in their droves, that bison is a healthy package. With high protein, low fat and low calories, just-food.com's Arthur Hanks thinks they've got a good chance finding converts, as long as it is cooked properly.

You may have had buffalo meat before - some dry, overdone chewy hockey puck of flesh stuck into a bland bun and served to you in some tourist trap offering an 'authentic' western dining experience. Something you would only try on vacation, once, and definitely something you wouldn't send a postcard home about.

This kind of blasé impression (how this writer remembers his first buffalo burger, some 25 years ago) is one that today's North American bison industry is working hard to change. And they have more than a few arrows ready in the marketing quiver. Not only is the meat, if properly cooked, succulent, it's also healthy: a low fat, low calorie, high protein package. And in a food world where red meat sales have plateaued or are in decline, the novel buffalo meat sector is making converts.
 
Advocates point out buffalo (or bison, we'll get to the name game later on) is leaner than beef, chicken or pork. It has about 30% more protein than beef. And it's a natural food: all bison is grassfed and the use of antibiotics and hormones is avoided. The flavour is not gamey as you might expect, and sometimes considered a bit sweeter. Because the meat has less moisture in it than beef, shorter cooking times are warranted. 

The challenge is getting this message out.

What consumers want

Gavin Conacher, executive director of the Canadian Bison Association (CBA), says "The industry has changed focus over the past few years. We're becoming more in tune to what consumers want."

The CBA created the Canadian Bison Marketing Council (CBMC) in 2001, and it is now developing a branding and communications strategy.

Samantha McDonald of the CBMC says that the group's work has both industry and consumer sides. On the producer side, programmes include implementing industry standards. "One of our big concerns is consistency and food safety," she says. To date, the bison sector has avoided the health scares associated with feedlot beef. By establishing an industry wide On Farm Food Safety Plan, the CBA hopes to keep it that way.

Niche markets and motivations

The other side is market and product development. And it's not a simple picture: "We are learning what consumers are looking for isn't necessarily what we think they are looking for," says McDonald.

Market research is revealing a series of niche markets and motivations Baby boomers, for example, are much more open to trying different exotic meats. Their parents are much more traditional and likely to avoid buffalo.

Building a brand

Besides health and taste, the CBMC can also draw on a rich buffalo mythology for building up their brand. Bison is a true North American heritage food, brought back from the verge of extinction by ranchers who developed an affinity.

At this point, bison doesn't have deep market penetration and some producers feel there has been too much production given the size of the market. Some also feel that buffalo meat's 20-50% price premium is too much for the average Canadian consumer. Certainly, bison is not commonly found in supermarkets. Instead, most market growth to date over the past decade has been through two avenues: the "white tablecloth" restaurant market, and straight out of the farm gate.

Conacher says having a good chef on hand helps buffalo make a good first impression. And direct marketing by producers to consumers has worked as well: now it accounts for about one third of all sales. And for many producers, this is a new kind of business activity. They've been building up stock.

Last year, the Canadian herd numbered 200,000 (with 1890 involved producers). Each head offers about 600lbs of meat. About 11,000 head were inspected for slaughter in 2001 resulting in about 660,000lbs of dressed meat ready for the market. The CBA placed the value of this buffalo at about C$40m (US$25.46m), just under a quarter of the total North American market. 

Finding a market

According to the CBA, 90% of all bison meat is exported, and the major market is south of the border. While the US has its own large bison herds, Canadian quality and a cheaper dollar is helping with access to the US market. The US' National Buffalo Association (NBA) faces many similar challenges in identifying markets. However some very strong regional markets exist in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. In the state of Colorado, one of the centres of the bison industry, per capita consumption of buffalo is at a high of 6lbs a year. (By comparison, the average Canadian consumes only 0.45lbs a year).

A major US initiative of note has been recently launched by media mogul (and buffalo rancher) Ted Turner. His new chain of family restaurants, Ted's Montana Grill, features buffalo as a prominent menu choice.

Europe is still largely unexplored. But some gains were made in France and Germany with the market void created by the outbreak of mad cow disease. Again, the primary market is restaurants, where diners are converted one meal at a time.

Challenges ahead

There are many challenges ahead as the bison sector hopes to guide growth, define the bison health message and get out of the supply and marketing struggles that small food industries generally face. But there's one nagging problem: the name. There is no agreement as to what you should call this meat.

Expert Analysis

Meat & Poultry in the USA

This report provides a useful overview of the US market giving size & share data, along with profiles of the leading players.

 

While the taxonomist's name is bison, in the USA usage leans towards buffalo. Buffalo and bison are used somewhat interchangeably in Canada (like in this article). But according to Conacher, when some buyers think of buffalo, they first think of the unrelated Water or Cape buffalo, also now being sold as a novel meat worldwide. And while the US-based NBA has urged the usage of bison to avoid confusion with their longer horned namesakes, giving up such a well-known brand name might mean a loss of identity with other markets. "North American Buffalo" and or "North American Bison" might work just as well.

Call it any neologism you want, to me it's still buffalo. And just don't serve me what I ate as a kid.

By just-food.com correspondent Arthur Hanks

Further information

Bisoncentral is the starting point for more information on the Canadian and US buffalo industries.