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Commodities: Plains cooks shuffle off to buffalo

Q. What's the difference between a buffalo and a bison?

A. You can't wash your hands in a buffalo.

THIS terrible joke may tickle your guests at your next barbecue, particularly if you've found some buffalo burgers to throw on the grill. That won't be as impossible as it sounds, for buffalo burgers and steaks have just made their debut in a British supermarket and are already attracting lively interest.

The North-Eastern Co-operative launched buffalo burgers and steaks in four outlets last Wednesday, after customer taste-tests. The Co-op bought the buffalo meat from a Hertfordshire specialty wholesaler, The Pelham Venison Company near Buntingford, which airfreighted it from Canada.

In the US, buffalo burgers and steaks are 25 to 50 per cent more expensive than beef. But the Co-op is selling it for a bargain 30p per burger, the same as beef burgers, and for pounds 4.50-pounds 4.90 per pound or pounds 1.25 a piece for steaks, comparable to sirloin at about pounds 5.

In its Newcastle upon Tyne, Darlington, Stockton-on-Tees and Whitby branches, the store sold more than 50 lbs of buffalo from Wednesday to Friday. That's roughly how much it sells of venison, a specialty meat it has carried for eight years.

Spokeswoman Suzanne Heron said: 'It's early days but it looks like it's taking off quite well. Our butchers said they had a lot of questions from customers about the taste and how to cook it.'

The taste? Some say it is sweeter and spicier than beef, and not as filling. Others call it tough. But it's a hot item in America right now, as a novelty item on restaurant menus and for seasoned home barbecue chefs.

Sainsbury and Tesco say they don't carry it. But don't despair if it's not yet available in your area. Christopher Hughes of Pelham Venison wholesalers says he may be supplying buffalo for at least one leading national supermarket chain by the autumn.

The buffalo, a romantic symbol of the American Wild West, is not an endangered species. The dark-brown, shaggy animal, correctly called the American or Plains bison, once roamed over most of North America in numbers as high as 60 million. Bison were the mainstay of the Plains Indians' lifestyle, but the creatures nearly became extinct around 1900 after white civilisation moved West and began slaughtering them indiscriminately for meats, hide and sport.

Action by cattlemen and conservationists led to government protection of the species on reserves and their numbers were built back up. Today bison live in all 50 US states (yes, even Hawaii). There are 120,000 head in the entire country - about the number of cattle slaughtered in the US each day.

Buffalo are ranched privately in the American West, mostly on small ranches. A mature bull can weigh more than 2,000 lbs and can sell for dollars 1,500 to dollars 3,000. With their pronounced shoulder hump, coarse thick hair and beard, these hulking animals are an intimidating sight.

The National Buffalo Association in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, promotes buffalo as a healthy alternative to other meats and as an agricultural alternative for farmers who want to diversify. Ironically, it also extolls the animals' role in American heritage at the same time as it encourages people to eat them.

Kim Dowling, administrative director, says the meat is less fatty than beef, pork, chicken and even some types of fish. A cooked, 3 1/2-ounce portion of buffalo meat contains 2.42 grams of fat versus 5 to 10g for beef, 40 mg of cholesterol and 143 calories, less than tuna.

Because buffalo are not fed hormones, no drug residues build up in their systems and the NBA has never had complaints about allergic reactions. In America, the meat has gained popularity rapidly among the health-conscious consuming public over the past five to seven years. Disneyland buys it, a growing number of restaurants and supermarket chains out West offer it, and Weight Watchers includes it on its approved foods list. A resurgence in country and western fashions and the image of freedom associated with the buffalo have added to its popular appeal.

'But the meat is not as much in the mainstream as we would have hoped,' Ms Dowling says, partly because demand far exceeds supply. The cost, sometimes double the price of beef, can also put off shoppers.

The industry is still a specialty commodity market in its infancy. Individual ranchers raise an average of just 100 to 500 head. The biggest US ranch, the Triple U in South Dakota belonging to the Houck family and featured in Kevin Costner film Dances with Wolves, has about 3,500 animals.

Ted Turner, founder of Cable News Network and husband of actress Jane Fonda, owns three ranches in New Mexico, Montana and Florida with a total of 3,500 head, adding glamour to the business. Yet it is still so small that figures for sales and exports are not available. This week, from 27-31 July, the Turner-Fondas will be among those attending an International Bison Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

(Photographs omitted)