DENVER -- Demand is growing for lean buffalo meat, a specialty item that's become an appealing alternative to beef -- and more common in supermarket meat cases.
In response to demand, the number of buffaloes being raised is growing 15% to 20% a year, according to the National Bison Association. The total bison population numbers between 350,000 to 400,000, and the association estimates there will be a million buffaloes before long.
Sales of bison meat are also on the rise. In the past year, nearly $1.2 million worth of bison, in fixed-weight packages, was sold, according to AC Nielsen, Schaumburg, Ill. That's a 56% increase over the previous year.
"We're seeing more placement of product," said Sam Albrecht, executive director of the National Bison Association, which has joined forces with a dozen of the country's leading chefs to promote the meat. To demonstrate its versatility, the chefs created signature bison recipes -- everything from stout-braised osso buco to spice-crusted tenderloin -- that were featured all summer on their respective restaurant menus.
"A lot of consumers are hesitant to try a new meat," said Rosemary Metz, a publicist handling the bison promotion. "They'll try it for the first time at a restaurant rather than go home and prepare it on their own."
Retailers who carry buffalo say it appeals to a diverse crowd.
"We have customers call and ask for it," said Nick Tonno, meat department manager and buyer for the Fairway Market in Plainview, N.Y. "I had a gentleman come in from a hunting club. They were having some kind of affair. They wanted elk meat, grizzly bear, buffalo and fresh ostrich."
To round out the fresh bison sold at the service counter, as well as an assortment of other fresh game meats, Fairway this summer will roll out a line of buffalo steaks and burgers in modified atmosphere packages. Designed to extend shelf life, the packaging will address a common problem with buffalo meat -- it turns quickly.
"It should alleviate that," Tonno said. "We do quite well with [bison] on an everyday basis."
Vendors occasionally conduct in-store demos promoting bison sausage at some units of Wild Oats Community Markets. A few stores carry premium cuts like sirloin, said Robin Hoffman, meat, seafood and frozen food merchandiser for the 110-store chain, based in Boulder, Colo. Sales of ground bison, sold fresh in bulk and frozen in one-pound chubs, have been consistently strong, he said.
"Sales are becoming stronger nationally," he said. "Stores have increased their case space for it.
"People who like beef will choose bison as an alternative," Hoffman said. "In my opinion, the issue of leanness may not be the only reason they buy it. They buy the product because it tastes good. It's got a wonderful, rich flavor -- a richer flavor than beef. It's part of my diet."
The industry has a surplus of ground bison, and is trying to move more of it into supermarkets, Albrecht said. Two hurdles -- consumer acceptance and distribution -- stand in the way.
In addition to the restaurant promotion, the industry is focusing on the health aspects of bison. The meat is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, pork and chicken -- and contains no hormones, Albrecht said.
"We're a fairly small industry, compared to the other red meats," he said. "Unless people, supermarkets or distributors ask for it, or are willing to take the first step, it's tough for us to get inside the door.
"It'll be easy as we increase our sales and have more money for marketing and promotion," he said.
Bison has come a long way from the days when it was central to the Native American diet, in dishes such as washtunkla, a Sioux-style stew, and buffalo en appolas -- buffalo meat skewered on wooden sticks. Now it's stout-braised osso buco, featured on the menu at The Fort, a restaurant in Morrison, Colo., and oven-roasted spice-crusted tenderloin of bison at the Rattlesnake Club in Detroit.
"Since we first introduced it, [consumption] has definitely gone up just because there's more knowledge of the product," Hoffman said. "More people are trying it. A lot of that has to do with more restaurants carrying it."