U.S. bison program to affect Canada

A government purchase of ground bison for federal aid is expected to open up new markets for Canadian producers

Canadian bison producers will eventually benefit from a $17-million purchase of American ground bison under a U.S. federal aid program, says the executive director of the National Bison Association.

Dave Carter told the Canadian Bison Association annual conference that while the meat bought through the program must be from the United States, there will be a ripple effect.

“That is, we move those animals out of the backlog from the U.S. and into that process and then that’s going to open up the U.S. market to start bringing those Canadian animals back down here,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Dec. 4 that it would grant the NBA’s Section 32 request for a surplus purchase of up to $17 million worth of ground bison.

The Canadian government also bought surplus bison through a COVID-19 relief program, but only $560,000 worth.

Canadian Bison Association executive director Terry Kremeniuk said there is a backlog in Canada too, primarily due to the slowdown in the restaurant and foodservice sectors that has pushed both prices and slaughter down.

“At the end of this year, we’ll probably slaughter 6,000 animals, the lowest slaughter number since 1999,” he said.

The backlogs were already building in 2019. Carter said the NBA had developed a strategy to rebalance the industry and then COVID hit.

The immediate impact was to higher value cuts such as tenderloin, ribeye and strip steaks, which are about nine percent of a carcass but 25 percent of its value, he said.

Most of those cuts are also sold in restaurants, which were closing. So while retailers wanted more bison, they wanted the lower-priced trim.

“You simply cannot take a $24 tenderloin and turn it into a $9 brick of ground bison and make money,” he said.

The NBA board got busy collecting information to apply for COVID-19 relief packages, but they were not included in the first round in May, nor the second round in July.

They were finally accepted in September. But Carter said they knew that wouldn’t help alleviate the inventory backlog so that’s why they submitted the Section 32 request.

“For me, that’s a good way to say so long 2020,” he said of the news it had been accepted.

How much of the inventory is used depends on U.S. bison marketers and their bids, he added.

Carter expected more details this week.

“I just think psychologically it’s going to have a good effect,” he said. “I think the short-term effect is going to be at the auction markets. Calf prices have been fairly strong but the cull cow price has really been what’s taking the hit.”

It won’t mean the bison industry is out of the woods. Carter said even as restaurants open they focus on core menu items, not add-ons such as bison.

But some whole muscle cuts are starting to show up in retail cases. Costco has been carrying strip steaks and rib-eyes, he said.

“The challenge now is to get the public comfortable with buying those whole muscle cuts. People are still a little scared of bison,” he said, referring to not knowing how to cook it.

Other avenues the NBA is working on for its producers include trying to get bison into the USDA food box program for unemployed people and food banks.

Bison producers are encouraged by data that shows people are focusing more on personal health, eating healthy fats and environmental health. Consumers want ethical and sustainable meat options, he said.

Carter said the NBA has trademarked the phrases “Nature’s original plant-based protein” and “Regenerative by nature” and both are available for Canadian bison producers to use in their marketing.

American bison producers have their marketing sights set on Japan, Taiwan and South Korea after gaining access to Mexico last year. Carter said unfortunately that agreement doesn’t include human-grade offal, which is a huge opportunity there.

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