Saturday, March 19, 2011

Give me a home where the buffalo roam.

During a particularly tough hike last weekend, I suddenly had a craving. “I really want a giant cheeseburger,” I said to my husband. And truly, I had never wanted a cheeseburger more in my life than at that moment. This led to a long discussion amongst our hiking group about where I could find an ethical burger on short notice.

One option was Fuddrucker’s. There was no way I’d eat their beef, but they do serve so-called exotic burgers made from ostrich, buffalo, elk, or wild boar. I didn’t know anything about the practices on ostrich or buffalo ranches, but my craving got the best of me. I figured there can’t be a large enough market for buffalo meat to necessitate large CAFOs in the style we use for beef cattle or to significantly contribute to climate change (through the release of methane) or groundwater contamination. It was a gamble, I know, but that buffalo burger really hit the spot. In fact, two of my hiking buddies also opted for the buffalo burger.

Once my meat-mongering had subsided, I started wondering about how buffalo are actually raised. I started at the Fuddrucker’s website. About the exotic burgers, they state: “Our all-natural, free-range, grass and grain-fed game burgers are 100% antibiotic and hormone free”.

Let’s dissect this statement. Here is what “all-natural” means according to the USDA:

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as - no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)”

Well, that’s nice, but it doesn’t address any of my concerns.

To be called free-range, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Although it only says poultry, I am assuming that the definition applies more broadly. “Access” is not further defined, and free-range can describe conditions during any part of an animal’s life.

That the animals are fed grass or grain pretty much covers all of the options, although apparently, there have been studies on how well CAFO cows tolerate stale chewing gum (still in the wrapper) and old phonebooks [1].

Lastly, they state that the animals are raised 100% free of antibiotics and hormones. This is actually a good sign. Large feedlots have to use antibiotics because disease is so rampant. Also, antibiotics are used to treat a potentially lethal condition called acidosis (affecting the rumen) that is caused by feeding grain to cattle. If these animals were raised without antibiotics, they can’t be on massive feedlots although they may still be confined on a smaller one. As for acidosis, one way of avoiding it is to simply kill the cattle sooner – shortening their lives to avoid the illness.

I wasn’t able to find any information about sourcing on the Fuddrucker’s website, and they have not yet replied to my email inquiry. Instead, I looked for general information on raising buffalo, buffalo meat sources, and the potential for buffalo acidosis. The first thing I learned is that what we call buffalo are actually bison.

Because bison are grass-loving ruminants, they are prone to acidosis when fed grain, just like beef cattle. Acidosis can contribute to E. coli, and last year, an outbreak of E. coli was linked to some “natural” bison meat [2]. Still, most bison are grain-fed on a feedlot for some time, usually the last 100 days or so of their lives [3][4]. Below, is a figure from the Bison Feedlot Production Factsheet from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture showing the major production practices.

Despite the picture I have in my head when I think of buffalo – wild creatures roaming the prairie - bison are generally raised in feedlots and on a diet that includes grain (see [2] for a good description of the contrast). The feedlots may be smaller, and certainly the lack of antibiotic usage is a step up from most CAFO beef. However, the bison are still being force-fed a diet that makes them sick. These wild animals are still confined in pens, the runoff and pollution from which do not appear any more restricted than for a cattle CAFO. In short, in terms of ethical implications, most bison meat is about the same as cattle meat raised on a small CAFO. Also, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA does not require inspections on bison meat [3].

The bottom line, here, is that just because an animal is “exotic” or “wild”, doesn’t mean it was ethically-raised. Sadly, alternative meats are not a free pass, and sourcing ethical bison requires as much vigilance as beef, pork, or poultry. Until I know the actual source of Fuddrucker’s buffalo meat, I will treat it like any other restaurant meat, as something to avoid.

More ethical bison sources: Some 100% pasture-raised, grass-fed bison meat is available. Full Circle Bison Ranch, for example, allows their buffalo to roam on certified organic pasture eating grass and never meeting an antibiotic, hormone, or pesticide throughout their lives. Northstar Bison is also 100% pasture-raised and grass-fed. I would be wary of The Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat Company. They say their bison are 100% ranch-raised, and the website makes their production sound really ethical. However, they do grain finish their bison on corn.

Cited sources:
[1] Summary of research on CAFO feed from Eat Wild.
[2] Putting Bison on Feedlots: Unnatural, Unnecessary, Unsafe by Andrew Gunther.
[3] Bison production guide from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.
[4] Bison Feedlot Production Fact sheet from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.


  1. Look, now there are some in your backyard!

  2. Look out for greenwashing. As Bison becomes known for health benefits and flavor many new products come to the market. "Grass-fed and grain finished on pellets' is surely a FEEDLOT.

    Wild Idea Buffalo is the best, no feedlots, and a mobile slaughter unit they designed. Tasty tasty.