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

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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007; Page F01

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.

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