Venison Seeks Its Spot In the U.S. Food Chain
Venison Seeks Its Spot In the U.S. Food Chain

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

As perfect squares of dark red meat sizzled in a pool of olive oil, an alluring aroma alerted shoppers to free protein at the end of Aisle Three.

That's where New Zealand farmer Andy Russell was sticking toothpicks in tiny portions of blood-rare venison steak. And while Russell mostly heard such responses as "that's delicious" in this sampling at Whole Foods Market in Logan Circle, he estimates that about 20 percent of the customers evoked the name of a certain adorable Disney fawn.

"Bambi!" said Brookland resident Frances Manning, 65, after a nibble. "I like animals. Now all I can think about is Bambi. We don't need to eat everything."

But to Russell, who was in town recently to represent the export company Firstlight Foods, grass-fed venison shouldn't be considered far-fetched. It's a lean, healthful choice with more protein, less saturated fat and three times more iron than beef. And it's certainly not Bambi, who besides being a 65-year-old fictional animated character is a different breed altogether: a wild white-tailed deer.

Unlike the gamy meat from white-tails, venison from farm-raised red deer tastes mild. And when cooked properly -- quickly and at high heat -- it's tender and juicy.

For New Zealand venison farmers, who also raise cattle and sheep in the same pastures, the United States is an untapped market. U.S. deer farmers have a national organization but no marketing campaign. Continued widespread drought in the key deer-farming states of Texas and Pennsylvania, coupled with the fear of spreading a disease that nearly shut down the U.S. industry in 2002, has New Zealanders seeing an opportunity.

With an estimated 2 million red deer stocked on more than 3,500 farms, New Zealand has the world's largest deer-farming industry. The first farms went into business in the early 1970s as a way to manage an explosion in the population of red deer, an animal first brought to the islands from Scotland in the 1880s. More than 1 million deer roam free.

"We want to make venison an everyday product," says Russell, 43.

The farmer, who runs 1,500 Scottish red deer on his 400-acre, high-fenced farm on the west coast of the country's North Island, was on a 15-city promotional tour to 30 supermarkets with six other Firstlight farmers. He confided that he was "totally out of my comfort zone cooking in a supermarket. I go to town once in a fortnight."

About 95 percent of New Zealand venison is shipped to Europe, primarily to Germany. And the popularity there is growing. In the United Kingdom, one major supermarket chain reports that venison sales rose 70 percent in the last year and cites celebrity chefs as promoting the sales. (In the United States, some restaurants have long served venison from New Zealand, but retail sales are minimal. In fact, U.S. consumption of venison is so low that the government doesn't track it.)

But there is a supply-and-demand problem for the deer exporters. For the most part, Germans eat fresh venison in fall and winter, and then sales dramatically drop off. With New Zealand's lush, year-round growing season, farmers are hoping North America can fill the gap.

The United States has more than 7,800 elk and deer farms, with about 1,000 farms each in Texas and Pennsylvania. But the North American Deer Farmers Association estimates that only 20 percent of those farms produce venison for commercial sale. The others are hunting preserves and breeding stock farms, and in the United States it is illegal to sell venison from hunted deer.

As in New Zealand, the American deer-farming industry began in the 1970s, but it has had a harder time gaining traction. There are no authorized deer farms in Maryland, according to the state's Department of Natural Resources. In Virginia there is just one: Deauville Fallow Deer Farm in Basye, in the Shenandoah Valley, with a herd of 115.

Hank Dimuzio, spokesman for the deer farmers association and owner of LedgEnd Farm in Middlebury, Vt., runs a herd of 600 deer and takes 150 to market every year. He sells the meat to the New England Culinary Institute and to two small markets in his area. He says American deer farmers aren't ready to compete with the New Zealanders.

"Why can New Zealand market like they do? They're an export nation," explains Dimuzio, who has been in the business for 13 years. "They get it out there, and they appeal to the five-star chefs. They can graze all year, and their costs are very, very low."

It's a different story for U.S. farmers such as Gail Rose, who owns the lone Virginia deer farm and says it might not survive another year.

"It takes crazy people to raise deer," says Rose, whose farm has been in operation for 16 years. "It's difficult to do your own marketing. We're not big enough to feed into a big system and supply a supermarket. We're hurting from drought, and hay is impossible to get."

Then there is the scourge of chronic wasting disease, which is similar to mad cow disease and spreads quickly when deer are managed in captivity. Scientists don't know whether it can be transmitted to humans, but some states nonetheless have banned new deer farms, while others, including Maryland and Virginia, have forbidden the interstate transportation of deer, which makes it difficult or impossible for farmers to renew their stocks. For Rose, that means her herd can only dwindle.

In New Zealand, where lamb is the favored meat, followed by beef, poultry and seafood, venison is considered a special-occasion game meat. Deer there have no natural predators or problems with chronic wasting disease. Fresh meat for export is shipped by boat and wet-aged in Cryovac during the five-week journey to Oakland, Calif.

In relation to other venison producers, Firstlight Foods is a mid-size company, representing 18 farmers who are shareholders. It processes about 5 percent of the farm-raised deer in New Zealand. Four far-larger exporters focus on shipments to Europe. In six months, Firstlight hopes to export the farmers' marbled Wagyu beef to the United States.

New Zealand venison does not come all that way to be inexpensive. The top-of-the-line frenched rack chops from Firstlight are about $26 per pound. Still, the first shipment of venison to Whole Foods stores in the mid-Atlantic region sold out in two days. "When we were approached to bring venison in, it was a bit of a question mark," says Sarah Kenney, Whole Foods spokeswoman. "But sales have exceeded all expectations."

The New Zealand farmers hope North Americans will follow the Europeans in their willingness to pay a premium. Meanwhile, deer farmer Russell says some of his countrymen eat wild venison, but few dine on the farm-raised product. "New Zealanders can't afford it," he says.

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