The specialty meat business has been good to Rich Forrest – and vice versa. Forrest is the owner of Grande Premium Meats, a specialty meat wholesaler and retailer based in Del Norte, Colo. Forrest sells a variety of specialty meat –including buffalo, elk, deer and goat – mostly through Internet sales and phone orders. Forrest is glad to introduce people to his premium protein products, whose tastes reflect a range of flavors. He knows certain specialty meat is high in protein and iron, low in fat and nutritious. He’s all for people eating healthier food.
More people are buying and consuming his products than ever before. Forrest, who began Grande Premium Meats in 1992, says his customer base is fi ve times what it was 10 years ago. Word of mouth and peoples’ desire to consume more healthy food has spurred his company’s growth.
“Business is quite good,” Forrest says. “We’ve had record sales in every quarter for several years in a row…We’ve had trouble keeping up with demand.”
While more people are eating specialty meat, it’s still a small audience compared to that of beef, chicken and pork, Forrest says.
“We’re not exactly Tyson Foods here,” he adds. “It’s easy to double five bucks; it’s a lot harder to double $50 million.”
While the price of specialty meat isn’t cheap (elk tenderloin is $27.95 per lb. at the high end), people are still buying it. They are, however, purchasing fewer tenderloins and ribeyes lately because of the still-struggling economy.
“We’re selling more low-end specialty meats, like shoulders, which used to be a harder sell,” Forrest says.
What specialty meat is selling well? One could say buffalo sales are stampeding. The demand for buffalo has skyrocketed in the past two years, thanks in part to consumers’ desire for all-natural meat product, Forrest says. More consumers are also impressed with buffalo’s flavor.
“It has a f lavor that’s more robust,” Forrest says. “Beef has kind of a flat taste to me after eating buffalo for so long.”
Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association (NBA), says recent mainstream media coverage of the buffalo business (a story in the New York Times included) has helped spur demand. Buffalo sales have been so strong that there’s a shortage of animals, which is driving up the price of the meat. Carter says the NBA is trying to recruit more ranchers into the business.
The NBA is marketing three attributes of buffalo to consumers, including its nutrition profile. The second attribute is that buffalo presents itself well to the natural and sustainable food movement.
“When you’re talking about food, there’s nothing more sustainable than an animal that has been in the ecosystem for tens of thousands of years and grazes on grass that evolved in concert with that animal,” Carter says, noting it’s also illegal to use growth hormones in buffalo.
The third attribute is buffalo’s taste, which has been the toughest to promote because people assume the meat is tough and tastes gamey, Carter says.
“It has been a challenge to get people to take their first taste if it,” Carter adds. “But now that we’re getting enough people to try it, they’re saying, ‘Wow, this is good. Where can I get some?’ ”
Buffalo was all the rage in the early 1990s when the cattle business was down, but the market crashed because of high prices. When Carter joined the NBA in 2001, he realized it was vital to connect to consumers about buffalo’s qualities and that it was a premium product. The approach is working.
But the NBA is also careful about not turning buffalo into a commodity. Back in the 1990s, some people in the buffalo industry wanted it to become the next beef.
“One of the things we recognize is we will always be a niche product,” Carter says. “I tell people we don’t expect to become – and we don’t want to become – the next beef. If buffalo just becomes another version of beef, then people won’t pay a premium price for it. We’ve committed ourselves to staking a place in the market that’s built around premium quality.”
A key to buffalo’s growth surge is an improvement in distribution. In the past, buffalo had to be shipped by package delivery companies like UPS.
“Now all of the major distributors have it on their price lists and trucks,” Carter says. “Having that distribution infrastructure developed has been critical.”
The improved distribution also means buffalo can now be found at major grocery chains like Giant Eagle and Kroger.
“The good news now is that it’s much more available to the general public,” Forrest says. “The bad news is it’s driving the cost of the animal up. As long as the demand continues, the price will be high.”
While the price of one lb. of buffalo ground beef has soared to more than $7, Carter says dedicated buffalo eaters are still buying it.
“The price has gone up sharply in the last few months because of the shortage of animals,” he adds.
While more producers are getting into the business, they’re holding back females from slaughter for breeding purposes, which has compounded the shortage in the short term, Carter says.
“We’re pleased our customers have stayed with us, but we also want them to know we’re doing our best to get more supply out there so we can keep buffalo at an affordable price,” Carter says.
As much as the buffalo industry has grown the past few years, it still only processes about 70,000 animals a year, Carter says.
“The beef industry processes about 125,000 animals a day,” he adds.
Despite increased demand for buffalo, the average consumer eats only about one-tenth of a pound of buffalo annually, compared to about 66 lbs. of beef.
“I look at that those numbers and say there’s a lot of potential for growth,” Carter says.
Several buffalo slaughter and processing plants are driving the revival, including the North American Bison Cooperative and Rocky Mountain Natural Meats.
“There are entrepreneurs out there doing the heavy lifting to get us into the markets we need to be,” Carter says.
Demand drives prices
Buffalo is the most popular specialty meat, but it isn’t the only unique protein currently in demand.
“All the specialty meats are taking off,” Forrest says. “I judge this by animal prices, and almost all of them are up in terms of carcass prices.”
Rabbit is in demand, which is no surprise to Dean Goforth, owner of Blue Chip Farms in Fountain Inn, SC, who has processed rabbits for 31 years. Goforth can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a demand for rabbit meat. Goforth once had 23 distributors in 21 states. He grew his own rabbits and also had 106 growers that raised them for his business.
“We had a herd of about 30,000,” says Goforth, who operates the business with his wife, Arlene.
But Goforth had to scale back his business in 2004 because of health problems. His herd is now only about 6,000, and he only sells rabbit meat via the Internet (www.ardengrabbit.com). He sells fryers for about $6 a lb.
“We don’t have enough rabbit meat to fill all of the orders we have,” Goforth says. “I never could raise enough rabbits.”
Goforth warns against “junk rabbits,” which he says are grown in “factory farming-like” conditions. He says he uses only natural feed and no chemical medication for fryers.
“We raise a rabbit whose meat has a succulent taste to it,” Goforth says. “With junk rabbits, you end up with a bland-tasting meat.”
People like the taste of rabbit and the fact that it’s low in fat and high in protein, Goforth says, noting the US Dept. of Agriculture labels rabbit among some the most nutritious meat available.
Rabbit is much more popular overseas, Goforth says. Demand will continue to grow for rabbit meat in the US, but there will continue to be a short supply.
A shortage of animals has also led to a price increase of goat meat, says Forrest, who sells goat loin chops for $19.95 per lb. and goat ground meat for $5.85 per lb.
Forrest calls goat “an interesting critter for meat.” People from countries all over the world eat goat regularly, but not Americans.
“I’m one of the few people who sell it,” Forrest says, noting that goat meat, also called “caprito,” appeals mostly to ethnic people who live in the US.
“A lot of our customers are from the Caribbean and South America,” he says.
Many of the goats grown in the Midwest are shipped to the East Coast for processing. They are sold in small butcher shops there, in regions where many ethnic people reside.
On his website, Forrest writes that “goat hasn’t been a traditional red meat for those of us here in North America, yet the world has enjoyed and benefi tted from goat meat for centuries. Annually, domestic goat meat production has climbed steadily, but a significant percentage is still being exported, particularly to Mexico and the Caribbean area.”
Goat tastes similar to lamb, Forrest says. It’s also less greasy than lamb. So why haven’t Americans taken to goat?
“Because it’s…goat,” Forrest says, noting Americans just haven’t acquired the taste for eating the animals. “I thought it would be an easy sell, but it’s not.”
Forrest’s voice perks up when he talks about elk, which he calls his favorite specialty meat. Forrest says elk, a type of venison, tastes sweeter than beef and is more finely grained. It’s also more tender, darker and higher in iron than beef.
“A lot of people assume it’s going to have a gamey taste, but it doesn’t when it’s processed correctly,” Forrest says.
There are only 120,000 domestic elk in the US available for processing. There are about 2,000 elk farmers, and the average herd size is 30 to 40 animals.
There are only eight USDA plants that process elk, and it takes an inspector with a special certifi cation to oversee processing, Forrest says.
More women are eating elk than ever, says Forrest, noting it used to be mostly middle-aged men who ate the meat. Like buffalo, elk meat is viewed as more natural and originating from a healthier environment than beef, Forrest adds, noting that elk eat bushes, trees and grass, not feedlot grain.
Grande Premium Meats also sells red deer and whitetail deer. Red deer is similar to elk, Forrest says, noting that whitetail deer is “an up-andcomer” that’s gaining popularity as a specialty meat.
Someday, maybe folks will eat as much whitetail deer as they do buffalo. The NBA’s Carter doesn’t doubt that the same consumers who have embraced buffalo would embrace other specialty meat.
“People are saying they want red meat, but they want some variety,” he says. “There’s room for growth for everybody."
Larry Aylward is a freelance writer from Cleveland.