Wild game from alligator and emu to rattlesnake and venison -- seen by many as healthy red-meat alternatives -- is growing in select markets, though most of the country still winces at the accompanying price tags and evinces a lack of interest.
"I think people who are health conscious, work out and want to take in a high amount of protein are looking for new products," said Marty Venable, meat and seafood manager at a Whole Foods Market-owned Bread of Life store in Plantation Fla. Venable has stocked ostrich, buffalo and venison for about a year.
"Sales [of exotics] in 1996 were up 200% from 1995," explained Greg Landry, vice president of sales and marketing for Landry Foods Corp., Hollywood, Fla., a broker of game meats and related foodstuffs. Landry added that he was hoping for an additional 250% increase this year.
Landry said his three top sellers, in descending order, were buffalo, ostrich and alligator, with much of his sales concentrated in the West and in markets like New York and Washington, D.C.
Retailers interviewed by SN showed the most interest in buffalo of all the exotic meats. John Rolfe, director of meat and seafood at Glen's Markets, Gaylord, Mich., said that if he "were to carry one, it would be buffalo. My customers would feel more comfortable with it because it resembles more what they are used to buying and cooking."
Buffalo is also the only exotic that Fairway Foods, Northfield, Minn., carries, according to John Story, senior director of meat and deli.
"It's perfect for the United States because it evolved here," said Sam Albrecht, executive director of the Denver-based National Bison Association, which has 1,925 primarily rancher members in the United States. The animals, which have been widely available for the past five years, are ranched like cattle, he explained, and cost the same to raise while bringing in two to three times the amount for their meat.
"We can't meet the demand," said Albrecht, who reported that the American bison industry is growing by 30% a year.
According to Doris Allen, executive director of the American Ostrich Association, Fort Worth, Texas, ostrich sales are up 80% to 90% since becoming more available in supermarkets during the past two years. "We slaughter 2,500 birds a month in the United States. Two years ago, when we were barely getting into the commercial market, it was about 100 a month," she explained.
Close to 70% of that meat goes to foreign markets, said Allen. "Americans are a little slow to try something new," she said.
When Landry started his brokerage business five years ago, he was lucky if he sold 100 pounds a month of buffalo, ostrich, alligator, rattlesnake, turtle, venison and boar combined. Of the 15,000 pounds of exotics that LFC's Landry reports selling each month to 12 wholesalers, he estimates that buffalo accounts for approximately 8,000 pounds. "The increase in sales has primarily been fed by buffalo and ostrich," he concluded.
"There's an interest on the part of consumers for less cholesterol," said Fairway's Story.
In fact, the meat from such game animals as deer, elk and antelope are all higher in protein than chicken or turkey, according to the AOA, which represents 1,700 ostrich producers, processors and brokers in the United States.
"Bison is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, pork and chicken," noted the NBA's Albrecht. He added that the term bison is used interchangeably with buffalo to refer to the same animal. According to AOA figures, 100 grams of cooked lean bison have 82-mg of cholesterol, compared with beef and pork's 86-mg and chicken's 89-mg.
"It's really tough to beat chicken, but bison does," Albrecht said.
And ostrich, according to AOA's Allen, wins hands down over both beef and chicken in the fat category. "It has two-thirds less fat than beef and half the fat of chicken," she noted.
However, not everyone agrees that the market for exotics is on the upswing. Many of the retailers interviewed by SN expressed no more interest in carrying exotics now vs. a few years ago.
The main reasons why supermarkets shunned exotics were their high costs compared to other meats, and the fact that the exotics were unfamiliar to the retailers' customer base.
Tom Stabler, owner of Stabler's Marketplace, Tempe, Ariz., said he has never carried exotics. "I have no intention of carrying them. I think it takes a more sophisticated clientele."
Bob Stewart, owner of Price Plus, in Aberdeen, Wash., said he didn't carry any exotics and "probably never will. We are a coastal town where people hunt and fish on their own."
And even in the heart of New York City, Milton Lister, director of meat and seafood purchasing at the Brooklyn-based Key Food Stores Cooperative, expressed no interest in ever carrying exotics.
One of the problems that exotics have encountered is consumers' lack of familiarity with them, explained Glen's Rolfe. "Not enough people have tried them. There's not a comfort level."
Another factor that has stopped many retailers from carrying more exotics is what is their perceived hefty price tag.
Fairway's Story called the cost difference sizable.
"Exotics are twice as expensive as the same cuts in beef," agreed Bread of Life's Venable.
"Some of that stuff can be in the $15 to $18 [a pound] price range," said Glen's Rolfe. "I don't see my wife coming in and saying, 'Let's have ostrich' and spending that kind of money."
The NBA's Albrecht said that bison can cost "two to three times more than beef, and as much as five times as much for the prime cuts of bison."
The AOA's Allen's estimates of the price gaps were much more moderate. "You are probably talking $2 a pound more for ground ostrich meat, and $5 more for steaks."
LFC's Laundry joked "When they tell me [exotics] are too expensive, I always say, 'Have you checked the price of a triple bypass lately?' "
"The price depends on how much they want to mark it up," he said. "Retailers are thinking that this is the new fresh fish, and they are thinking that they get a 100% mark up [on it]."
Some retailers are choosing to take the plunge into exotics slowly to give themselves time to see how they fare.
"We will carry venison seasonally," said Rolfe of Glen's, who has also sold alligator, primarily to a small group of customers, through the seafood department.
Rolfe said he just instituted a mail-order program for exotics. "We will order all of it. It comes in frozen and takes 48 hours." He said that he didn't expect to drive a lot of sales, "but I don't have a lot at risk except the cost of a $50 sign."
Bread of Life's Venable noted that his sales on ostrich, buffalo and venison increased about 40% over last year.
And although these four exotics accounted for a small percentage, around 5%, of his meat sales, he expects sales to continue to increase at the same rate.
Fairway's Story, who reported that he has stocked buffalo for two to three years, said sales had stayed even during that time period.
Not many retailers had ever had promotions for exotics.
"Occasionally, vendors will do a demo. Over the past year we have done two," said Bread of Life's Venable.
Rolfe explained that he probably wouldn't actively promote exotics, but "could see bringing in buffalo burgers and demoing them, that would be the only thing."
LFC's Landry said that he demos them himself because there's no other way to sell the product. "A lot of people turn their noses up -- but when they taste it, most of them like it."
He stressed the need to provide consumers with more information. "How can you sell something if you don't know how to cook it? They have to have recipe ideas."
AOA's Allen agreed with Landry, noting that "I think that [recipes are] really important to move ostrich. The average person who purchased it wouldn't know how to prepare it -- and because there is no fat, it can easily be overcooked."
As a greater variety of cuts and types of exotics becomes available, Landry thought both market acceptance and sales would grow. "As they come out with more mainstream items and reduce the cost, sales will increase," he concluded.
Bread of Life's Venable's prognosis was also positive. "I think it's on the increase. As demand increases, I think we'll see prices drop," he said.
Glen's Rolfe and Fairway's Story were less optimistic. "Mail-order [exotics] will be the lion's share of the sales," noted Rolfe.