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The class menagerie: exotic, upscale meats that have become popular with restaurant patrons are rapidly finding their way into supermarket cases.

There's usually a waiting line every night at Ted's Montana Grill, and that's no wonder. They say the food is spectacular. Once seated, diners sink their teeth into thick, juicy 11-ounce Kansas City strips accompanied by Parmesan creamed spinach and Aunt Fannie's famous squash casserole. Billed on the menu as "a steak lover's steak," the hand-cut sirloin is full of flavor, seared on the grill and brushed with lemon butter. Oh, and by the way, it's bison.

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Owned by media mogul and bison rancher Ted Turner, Ted's Montana Grill operates 41 restaurants in 15 states, and this year will be opening branches in Philadelphia, Cranston, R.I. and Schaumburg, Ill., just outside beef-loving Chicago. Judging from experience, once diners leave those new restaurants, on their next trip to Acme, Stop & Shop, Jewel or Dominick's they'll be asking their butcher, "Where's the bison?"

"When consumers go into Ted's Montana Grill they have a great experience with it, and they are looking for that bison at the grocery store," says Jeff Adair, founder and president of New Grass Bison Co. in Kansas City, Kan. "That foodservice market is really starting to drive the grocery market," he says, noting that bison consumption doubled from 2000 to 2004.

"In some cases we're having retailers say that buffalo is a mandatory part of the set," says Rex Moore, president of Maverick Ranch Natural Meats in Denver. "That's on a fresh, not frozen, basis. There's actually a shortage of buffalo meat in the United States this year because consumption is going up. It's making it onto a lot of restaurant menus and is just becoming a more widely acceptable meat item."

That's because bison (also called buffalo; either term is acceptable) is often regarded as being healthier than beef. Reader's Digest called bison one of five "super foods" for women because it is high in iron, other minerals and vitamins while being very nutrient-dense per calorie. "Bison are raised without growth hormones, steroids or antibiotics, and also get natural food, with most raised on grass," says Adair.

SMALLER MUSCLES

The animals are shaped differently from cattle, but for the most part the cuts of meat are similar. "One difference is that the primals are going to be slightly smaller on bison than cattle because cattle are bred to have those bigger muscles," Adair says. "A 16-ounce strip is not unusual in beef, but it would be in bison."

Bison is described as tasting slightly sweeter than beef. "It is cleaner because it is less greasy," Adair says, noting that the best way to educate consumers about bison is through in-store sampling. That's what New Grass Bison has done in Hy-Vee stores around Kansas City. "You have to get the product into the customer's mouth, let them experience it, and then it usually goes great from there," he says.

"We try to do a pretty proactive demo program," Adair notes. "In a lot of stores we try to go in and do it ourselves. In stores where management wants the staff to do it we spend a lot of time with them because bison is prepared a little bit differently. [See sidebar.] You don't want to overcook it, and we want to make sure that the staff understands that. They can't just slap a burger on the grill and let it cook forever."

$20 HOT DOGS

That's also the case with Kobe beef. Raised from Wagyu cattle originally imported from Japan, Kobe beef has caught on in the restaurant channel where it's not unheard of for diners to spend $20 for the pleasure of eating a Kobe hot dog. "The Wagyu breed has genetics that come from Japan, where the animals were raised for quality, not quantity, over the last few centuries, so they are not very efficient in terms of production," says Jay Theiler, director of brand development at Agribeef Co. of Boise, Idaho. "They take an extra year to get to market, which is almost unheard of in commercial production. The difference in Kobe beef is the genetics and the long feeding program. That makes for a higher-quality product with lots of marbling."

That marbling also shows up in Kurobuta pork, derived from Berkshire hogs, which Agribeef also produces. "Berkshire hogs are also not very 'efficient' and are raised for quality," Theiler says. "They are probably about 10% slower to market than regular commodity hogs, but they are very well-marbled and have lots of flavor," he says, noting that the flavor is not gamier, like wild boar, just richer. Theiler adds that a National Pork Board study of 25 attributes ranked Berkshire No. 1 on 19 of them, including taste and tenderness.

"There's a lot of interest in Berkshire and Duroc hogs because they are higher-marbled and have more flavor," says Becca Hendricks, strategic marketing manager at the National Pork Board in Clive, Iowa.

NICHES FOR FARMERS

"This is a way for small farmers to stay in business," says Larry Cizek, director of culinary niche marketing at the Pork Board. He notes that most Berkshire pork is finding its way into the restaurant channel. "The restaurants are demanding it and they are normally willing to pay a higher premium than a grocery store would," he says.

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Organic pork is also piquing consumer interest. "Really, right now it is just so expensive to produce organic pork," Hendricks says. "There are only a couple of small suppliers out there because the organic feed cost is so high, but there are other niche areas, and we're seeing some of the breed-specific and even special claims, like antibiotic free," she says.

Pork has become so lean that some suppliers are injecting it with solutions to make it more tender. "Some are trying to call natural pork just the stuff that hasn't been injected," says Moore. His pork is a Duroc and White Hog cross, and Maverick Ranch is looking to introduce organic pork sometime this year.

Organic and natural beef are two other niche areas of the meat case that are building a mainstream following. Moore predicts they'll be the next big thing. "Originally I thought organic beef was going to be a boutique or niche within a niche," he says. "Now I think it is going to go mainstream because just about every store has a natural beef item. Once everybody has natural, what's going to be the next premium item? It's going to be organic."

WELL-EDUCATED CLIENTELE

Statistics show that conventional meats are growing by 1% to 2% annually, while natural meats are growing in the 20% range, says Dennis Stiffler, executive vice president, food safety and education, at Coleman Natural Foods in Golden, Colo. "What is really unique is that the audience is growing," he says. "There is more diversity in the [natural] clientele base today than ever before. It doesn't know voter registration cards or ethnicity boundaries. About the only commonality they have is that they have a strong belief in value systems, plus they are usually well-educated."

Stiffler sees more growth in the natural prepared foods side of the business. Coleman has had a hot dog for years, but more recently added bacon and just introduced a ham. In 2006 it plans to introduce some cooked chicken products and pulled items, like pulled BBQ pork. "We think there is a tremendous opportunity for our case-ready products, whether it be grinds or whole-muscle meats," he adds.

In addition to its Wagyu cattle, Agribeef raises Pacific Northwest Double R Ranch beef. "We are probably one of the very few companies in the United States that is vertically integrated from start to finish," Theiler says. "With our Double R Ranch we have a source-certified Northwest beef product." Although not breed-specific, the Double R Ranch cattle are certified as having been raised strictly in the Pacific Northwest, unlike other cattle, which are usually sent to the Midwest for feeding. "We're promoting that we're in the West and 2,000 miles closer--and 2,000 miles fresher--to our customers," he says of the beef, which is being carried in several regional West Coast chains.

LAMB FROM DOWN UNDER

Australian lamb sells well on the East and West coasts but does surprisingly little volume in America's heartland. "At best, lamb represents about 2% of a meat case," says Stephen Pocock, trade marketing manager for Meat and Livestock Australia in Washington, D.C. "Lamb that we market in the U.S. is what we call a prime lamb, and it is a heavier export lamb with a larger plate covering," he says. The Australians breed them that way because American domestic lambs are a larger animal. Australia's falls midway between the larger domestic lamb and smaller New Zealand animals.

"Australian lamb is very sweet and has a very mild flavor, not gamy as it was 10 or 15 years ago," Pocock says. That's because production has shifted to the prime lamb, a hybrid cross between a Merino wool lamb and a meat lamb. About 99% of Australian lamb sold in the supermarket is fresh, chilled product.

In 2004 Australia shipped about 32,000 tons of lamb into the U.S., and 2005 shipments were projected to be up 30%, coming at the expense of New Zealand and American lamb. The three factions have banded together to form the Tri Lamb Group to grow overall consumption. "Lamb consumption is so low here and supply is always in demand, that growing the market is good for all of us," Pocock says.

GETTING YOUR GOAT

Australia is the world's second-largest red meat exporter and the U.S. is its largest market for beef, lamb and goat meat. As the demographics of the country change, goat meat is expected to really take off, and Australia is hoping to capitalize on that growth. But don't tell that to domestic goat growers.

"Our consumers prefer fresh, American goat to the frozen carcasses that are imported from Australia and New Zealand," says Marvin F. Shurley, president of the American Meat Goat Association in Sonora, Texas, which counts close to 600 members in 38 states. "People of Islamic faith are large consumers, as well as people from the Caribbean, Mexican Hispanics, West Africans, Filipinos, Koreans and Taiwanese. "Goat is the most widely consumed meat in the world," Shurley says. "Approximately 67% of the of the red meat consumed in the world is goat meat."

Shurley dispels the myth that goats eat tin cans, red shirts and other garbage. "Really, goats are probably one of the pickier eaters," he says. "Like a giraffe, they have a prehensile tongue and can actually pick single leaves off a tree if they want to. They are selective eaters when given the opportunity."

NO TASTE OF WOOL

He says goat has a mild flavor, like lamb. "Like good lamb, not some of that stuff that tastes like wet wool," he says in a Texas drawl. Domestic goats grow to about 70 pounds before they are slaughtered, resulting in a 35-pound carcass. "That's about the maximum acceptable carcass size at the current time. Our consumers' perception is that anything bigger than that is an old, tough animal," Shurley says, noting that in other countries a 25-pound carcass is the largest acceptable. "Through consumer education, largely by retailers and processors, people have accepted the larger sizes."

Most goat is sold through local butchers, although Shurley says H-E-B does an outstanding job in its Texas border town stores, as do Fiesta Mart and Minyard Food Stores. And with a $9 to $11 per pound average price range, more traditional retailers would be wise to add it to their meat cases. "Most of our consumers come from countries where people are used to spending a larger amount of their disposable income on groceries," Shurley says. "Our consumers coming from those backgrounds don't have a problem with that because if it's what they want they're willing to pay for it."

Consumers are also willing to pay a premium for Heritage turkeys and chickens. Frank R. Reese Jr., president of Good Shepherd Ranch in Lindsborg, Kan., virtually sold out of the nearly 9,000 turkeys he raised for Thanksgiving, with only 160 left. That's phenomenal, given that in 2004 he raised only 3,000 birds. "We're looking at increasing our sales even more in 2006," he says. "We've won every taste test we've gone up against with our birds."

That award-winning taste comes from what it is, coupled with how it is raised. "They are a genetically different animal that hasn't been selected for different characteristics, like rapid growth," he says.

And once consumers taste the difference they will come back. This past Thanksgiving Reese sold 300 of his Heritage Bronze turkeys to Hen House, a division of Ball's Foods in Kansas City. "They called wanting more, and next year they are talking about doing 1,000," he says. "I think they are convinced and now they are going to start doing chickens with us. We're offering them Cornish game--not rock Cornish game but the true, authentic Cornish game. It's a breed that existed in England 150 years ago, but a rock Cornish is just a regular chicken that was killed younger."

AGED CHICKEN

Maverick Ranch also sells Heritage Bronze and Blue Slate turkeys and chicken, but with a twist. "We age our chicken," Moore says. "Traditional commodity chicken is in the package less than two hours after it's harvested, but the breast meat tenderizes itself when it is aged on the bone over a 24-hour period."

With their scowling faces, long legs and sharp talons, ostriches are known to often be in a foul mood, but the fowls are actually quite tasty, delivering red meat flavor with two-thirds less fat, according to the American Ostrich Association. It's said to be similar in taste, texture and appearance to beef, and is comparable to beef in iron and protein content, but with less than half the fat of chicken and two-thirds less than beef and pork.

Now we just have to wait for Ted Turner to open an ostrich ranch and chain of restaurants to go with it.

RELATED ARTICLE: READY TO SELL

Case-ready meat has shown a steady increase in popularity over the last two years, with 60% of meat packages being case-ready in 2004, compared to 49% in 2003. The biggest increase came in pork, which grew 13%, followed by ground beef, up 10%, and beef, up 8%.

Sources: 2004 National Meat Case Study, Cryovac.

RELATED ARTICLE: COOKING INSTRUCTIONS

Exotic meats bring variety, excitement, traffic and profits to the meat aisle. But if they are not prepared right and end up tasting like shoe leather, chances are the customer will blame the store, and that will kill any future sales. Here are some easy cooking tips to pass along to shoppers:

* Bison/buffalo: "Bison can be substituted for beef in just about everything," says Jeff Adair, founder and president of New Grass Bison Co. in Kansas City, Kan. "The biggest difference is because it is leaner and has less fat, it will cook faster. So you need to cook it at a lower temperature for less time. Ideally, it should be served medium rare."

* Kobe/Wagyu beef: "It has a different melting point because there is more marbling, so you really don't want to eat it rare because you want to get the fat to melt," says Jay Theiler, director of brand development at Agribeef Co. in Boise, Idaho. "But you don't want to go much over medium. These products should be eaten between medium and medium rare."

* Goat: "Goat is a lean meat that can easily dry out and become tough if it is cooked under high heat very fast," notes Marvin F. Shurley, president of the American Meat Goat Association in Sonora, Texas. "Most Muslims use it in stews and curries. It is a wet-pot cooking method, which goat lends itself to exceptionally well."

* Ostrich: Because of its low fat content, ostrich cooks faster than other meat products. According to the American Ostrich Association, steaks and whole muscle should be cooked medium rare to medium. Cooking ostrich to well done is not recommended.
NUTRITIONAL COMPARISONS

PER 100 GRAM SERVING--COOKED MEAT--UPDATED DECEMBER 2002

 FAT CALORIES CHOLESTEROL IRON VITAMIN B-12
SPECIES GRAMS KCAL MG MG MCG

BISON 2.42 143 82 3.42 2.86
Beef (Choice) 10.15 219 86 2.99 2.65
Beef (Select) 8.09 201 86 2.99 2.64
Pork 9.66 212 86 1.1 0.75
Chicken (Skinless) 7.41 190 89 1.21 0.33
Sockeye Salmon 10.97 216 87 0.55 5.80

Bison, separable lean only, cooked, roasted, USDA NDB No. 17157
Beef, composite of trimmed retail cuts, separable lean only trimmed to
0[degrees] fat, choice, cooked USDA NDB 13365
Beef, composite of trimmed retail cuts, separable lean only trimmed to
0[degrees] fat, select, cooked USDA NDB 13366
Pork, fresh, composite of trimmed retail cuts (leg, loin and shoulder),
separable lean only, cooked USDA NDB No. 10093
Chicken, broilers or fryers, meat only, roasted USDA NDB No. 05013
Finfish, salmon, sockeye, cooked, dry heat USDA NDB 15086
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Title Annotation:FOCUS ON FRESH
Author:Turcsik, Richard
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:2865
Previous Article:Fruits of the season: imported produce makes the department a year-round contributor.
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