The first case of mad cow disease in the United States may encourage carnivores to consider eating meat from buffalo, the largest land mammals in North America and beloved symbols of the West.
Buffalo — also referred to as bison — historically played a large economic role in the lives of American Indians on the Great Plains who used every part of the animal for food, shelter and fuel.
But settlers hunted buffalo almost to extinction in the 19th century, helping to destroy the Indian way of life.
In recent decades a commercial bison meat industry has developed, and it may attract new consumers looking for an alternative to beef since brain-wasting mad cow disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, surfaced last month in a cow in Washington state.
A rare human form can result from consuming contaminated cattle products. While government officials have assured consumers that U.S. beef is safe, some people are nervous about eating it and more than two dozen countries have banned U.S. beef imports.
"We would much prefer people call up and ask about bison because they hear that it tastes great," Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, said. "And nobody should feel nervous about eating beef in the U.S."
The commercial industry, which dates to the mid-1980s, has been through ups and downs but last year started to see a rebound due to increased interest in high-protein diets.
Buffalo are fed grass then corn or potatoes for 90 to 120 days before they are slaughtered when they weigh around 2,000 pounds (907 kg). They are not fed antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts. The use of cattle remains in certain animal feed was blamed for spreading mad cow in Britain.
The buffalo industry is still dwarfed by the U.S. beef industry. Carter said he expects 2003 figures to show about 31,000 head of bison were slaughtered, up from U.S. Department of Agriculture official figures of 25,641 in 2002.
More protein, less fat
A pound of ground buffalo meat costs about $4.99, compared with $4 for high-quality lean, ground beef. Bison boosters say the meat has a similar flavor to prime beef but is more tender and sweeter. It is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than beef but contains more protein and iron.
In the early 1800s buffalo numbered around 60 million, but were slaughtered by settlers, bringing their numbers down to 1,500 to 2,000. There are now about 350,000 head.
While the percentage increase is hearty, bison is only a blip on the radar screen when compared with the U.S. beef industry that processes 130,000 head in a single day.
But things may be looking up. Paul Bernardo, vice president of sales and marketing at Rocky Mountain Natural Meats in Denver, said supermarket chain Safeway Inc.'s Denver stores this week increased their bison order by 65 percent. Safeway did not return a call seeking comment, and a spokeswoman for Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Inc. said the grocery chain has not noticed a significant change in demand for buffalo.
"Some of our major customers were also calling to make sure that beef was not added to our bison meat," Bernardo said.
Already on menus
The company processes about 8,000 head of buffalo a year and production has risen 70 percent in the past year in part because it supplies Ted's Montana Grill restaurants. The restaurant chain is the brainchild of media mogul Ted Turner, the largest bison herd owner in the United States.
Demand from diners at the chain for bison has remained at 60 percent of orders compared with 40 percent for beef and chicken, according to spokeswoman Mary Puissegur.
The industry would like to see a steady rise rather than a boom, according to Carter. "Our main challenge is to get people to take that first bite," he said. Consumers not familiar with bison expect it to be tough and have a gamy taste.
Most buffalo production is in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico.
Indian tribes are also playing a role in restoring bison.
"Most of our marketing effort is to provide for our own people first," Fred DeBray, executive director of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative in Rapid City, South Dakota, said. The group of 54 tribes has a collective herd of about 8,000 head.
"When we subsisted on a diet of primarily buffalo, people were healthy. When the buffalo disappeared that's when all our problems started," DeBray said.
After tribes take care of their own there should be an opportunity to sell to the general public. "Eventually we'd like to get to the point where we can have enough for everybody," he said.