Bison or buffalo? Yes, it matters

The word buffalo is so ingrained with the American public — think Buffalo Bill and others — that people will still equate buffalo with bison.
 | File photo

The National Bison Association is working to make sure American consumers aren’t confused between bison and buffalo.

Executive director of the United States-based NBA Dave Carter told the Canadian Bison Association annual convention that about 18 months ago the industry noticed some pet food companies were using pictures of bison, and claims of bison ingredients, on packaging.

For example, Taste of the Wild’s High Prairie dry formulation promises to contain roasted bison and roasted venison and uses a photo of bison grazing on the package.

The label lists buffalo as the first ingredient, followed by lamb meal, chicken meal, sweet potatoes, peas, potatoes, canola oil, egg product and then roasted bison and roasted venison, followed by others.

“For them to make that claim on the front panel they have to at least add three percent, but look at that number one ingredient,” Carter said. “This is not an illegal product because they are complying with the regulations as they are.”

But consumers probably don’t realize that buffalo means water buffalo when they see it listed as the first ingredient, he said.

Some other companies do the same type of marketing.

In the human food market, he has found natural ground buffalo in the retail meat case next to bison sirloin steaks. The first is water buffalo, not bison.

An important distinction is the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection mark on the bison steaks but not on the ground buffalo package.

Legally, the water buffalo don’t have to go through a USDA inspected plant, only an FDA-approved plant. The bison industry chooses to use USDA inspection as a mark of quality.

“The retailer is still selling this for $10.50 a pound, with a product that they’re getting about $2.50 cheaper per pound than bison, so you can imagine the temptation for those retailers.”

The NBA has identified this as a priority and the board has asked the American Association of Feed Control Officials to examine it. Carter said the good news is that AAFCO has agreed to address the issue.

“The bad news is AAFCO operates very slowly so we’re trying to push them,” he said.

On the human food side, the NBA has filed a complaint with the FDA to push them to enforce better labelling.

Carter said next year there could be legislation that would require water buffalo to be labelled as such.

He said the word buffalo is so ingrained with the American public — think Buffalo Bill and others — that people will still equate buffalo with bison.

“It’s simply an issue of honesty, transparency with our customers and food safety,” he said.

The Canadian Bison Association said it hasn’t had to deal with this issue yet, but one member said during the meeting that it’s up to producers to make sure to correct people who use the wrong word.

“In the 30 years that my parents have been in the industry people have used bison and buffalo interchangeably and we need to get away from that as a group,” said Penny Scott from Beldon Bison at Nipawin, Sask.

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