Slaughter shift to U.S. creates bison price gap

Producers who sell to Canadian slaughter plants are being paid significantly less than those selling to the United States

For Canadian bison ranchers, the last 12 months have been good or awful.

If a rancher has a business connection with a buyer in the United States and is exporting live bison there, then it’s been good.

If not, it’s been awful.

That’s because there’s a massive price gap, where bison sold into the U.S. for slaughter are garnering about $4.80 to $5 per pound.

Animals sold for slaughter in Canada are getting $3.50 to 3.80 per lb.

“If you’re selling into the Canadian marketplace, if you can find a buyer, you’re at $3.80 (per lb.), at best,” said Les Kroeger, Canadian Bison Association president and a bison producer from Hanley, Sask.

The price difference, between the U.S. and Canada, is about $1,000 per head.

“Anybody … who has those relationships to trade live bison into the U.S. are doing very well,” Kroeger added. “The Canadian producers relying on the Canadian markets are the ones that are hurting…. We’re going to see producers exiting the industry if we don’t see some (price) correction soon.”

The massive price gap is unusual and is partly explained by COVID-19.

Canada’s bison industry relies heavily on restaurant demand and exports of bison meat to Europe. Most Canadian restaurants that serve bison have been closed or are operating at limited capacity. And the cost of shipping bison meat to Europe has exploded, perhaps four times higher than pre-Covid prices, because there are fewer planes travelling on which to ship.

The downturn in demand had an immediate impact on bison slaughter at federally inspected plants in Canada.

Agriculture Canada data shows:

  • Bison slaughter in 2020 was 5,800 head.
  • Bison slaughter was 8,100 head in 2019.
  • Bison slaughter in Canada has been sliding downward since the late 2000s, when federally inspected plants processed about 18,000 per year.

“In 2020, Canadian bison harvesting was the lowest in over 20 years,” said Dean Andres, a bison producer from Windthorst, Sask., in an email.

Meanwhile, live bison exports to the U.S. increased 20 percent in 2020, reaching about 24,000 head. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected bison slaughter increased by 7,000 head and hit 63,000 in 2020, the highest amount on record.

The additional sales of live bison to the U.S. are welcome, but Canada could be processing more bison meat at home and selling it to the world.

That’s become difficult because of shipping costs to Europe, but also because of restrictions in the U.S.

Andres has heard of recent cases where USDA inspectors at American facilities are refusing to put the USDA seal of approval on bison meat from Canada.

“Without (U.S.) market access, there has been a build-up of bison meat inventories in Canada,” Andres said. “Strategies are being evaluated to remove the U.S. market restrictions. If this is not done, bison slaughter will continue to move to the U.S.”

Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association in America, said this isn’t a case where the USDA has changed its policy on bison meat imports.

The situation is messy because bison is regulated as a “non-amenable” species in the U.S.

Bison meat inspection is different from that for cattle and hogs.

“The difference is that we pay for it (USDA inspection),” Carter said.

If a bison raised in Canada is slaughtered at an American plant, it can get a USDA seal of approval.

“(But) because we’re a non-amenable species, they don’t recognize that bison (meat) coming in from Canada, even under (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) inspection, can have a USDA seal on it…. That’s nothing new. It’s something that’s been in place for umpteenth years,” Carter added.

He isn’t aware of U.S. bison processors, which previously accepted Canadian meat to make burgers or other products, that are now refusing to buy it because of USDA rules.

Leaders of Canada’s bison industry and meat sector are in talks with the U.S. to sort out the inspection and labelling issue.

There are potential solutions. It could involve the U.S. recognizing CFIA-inspected bison meat, even though bison is a non-amenable species.

But such a change could be politically difficult in the U.S.

Slaughter numbers may be up in America but sales of high-value bison cuts to restaurants, like tenderloins, strips and rib-eyes, are down significantly.

The market has shifted to ground bison at grocery stores.

So, it’s not like U.S. bison producers are thriving, Carter said.

“Right now, with the price pressure on the marketplace… the downward pressure on producers here has been significant,” he said.

“This might not be the optimal time to say, hey, let’s go petition the USDA to make it easier to import (bison) meat.”

Still, the U.S. bison sector relies upon Canadian ranchers for a steady supply of bison. And the industry needs successful producers, on both sides of the border, Carter said.

“The phrase we’ve always used in our business is the animal never knew there was the 49th parallel, so why should we?” he said.

“We really value our relationship with the Canadian producers. We want to see all North America bison producers be profitable…. But this is just a challenging time for all of us.”

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