Who's Game? Diners Go Wild for Exotic Meats

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Who's Game? Diners Go Wild for Exotic Meats

"Bear meat? You want fresh bear?" asked a rather incredulous Ariane Daguin in her thick French accent. "Yes, for a special safari dinner," replied the head chef at a fine New York restaurant. Not one to turn away new busibess, Daguin called several meat processors before finding one in South Dakota who said a freshly killed brown bear would arrive the next day. Elated, Daguin was able to provide some 30 pounds of choice bear meat for the restaurant's guests.

Bear is hardly meat-and-potatoes stuff. In fact, it is rather exotic fare for most people. Still, bear is but one of several wild animals whose flesh is increasingly finding favor with many discriminating American diners. In fact, the demand for exotic meat has become so great that many farmers and ranchers here and abroad now raise alligator, deer, bison, antelope and rabbits, among other wild animals, for restaurants and gourmet food shops from coast to coast.

Not surprisingly, what qualifies as "exotic" meat is subject to differing views. To wildlife biologists, for example, an exotic is a species not native to North America, including nearly all farm animals. To most consumers, on the other hand, meats other than beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry would probably qualify. For an increasing number of restaurants and, perhaps, soon home diners, however, exotic meats are becoming more commonplace.

"Many of the animals we think of as exotic are not so exotic anymore," says Daguin, who runs D'Artagnan, Inc., a New Jersey distributor of specialty meats and birds. "You can often find them in your neighborhood food market," she adds.

And you can find exotics increasingly among the meats inspected under federal laws. But their relative newness as commercial products sometimes makes regulation difficult. "We have to become better informed on these animals because people are eating more of them," says Douglas Berndt, slaughter inspection director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service.

The Meat Inspection Act of 1906, as amended in 1967, gives USDA authority to inspect red-meat animals, such as cattle and sheep, plus swine, goats, chickens and turkeys. Until recently, USDA stuck to domestic stock and left what inspection there was of exotic meats to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, acting under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

FDA inspects meat products and producers' facilities on a periodic basis or when problems occur, says James Summers, assistant to the director of regulatory guidance in FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Inspections of exotic meats focus on the cleanliness of processing facilities and the procedures used to cut, package, store and ship the meat. "We want to ensure that any food product is not adulterated, misbranded, or otherwise unfit for human consumption," Summers says.

Fortunately, problems have been few and far between, so not many inspections were needed--that is, until demand for exotic meats began to grow. "In my 10 years in the field in California in the 1960s, I inspected a rabbit processing plant once," recalls Donald Plumb, an FDA consumer safety officer. "But I went to bakeries, macaroni plants, and tuna canneries daily."

USDA, too, is now inspecting exotic meats. USDA inspections focus on the quality of the meat and its freedom from parasites, disease and microbial infestations. At the request of ranchers, the department began inspecting bison (a native North American animal popularly, but incorrectly, called buffalo) facilities in 1985. USDA is now proposing to extend its voluntary program, with costs paid by the inspected, to ranch- or farm-raised deer, antelope, and other exotic species later this year, Berndt says.

For FDA, the exotic getting the most attention these days is probably the American alligator. Found in coastal and inland marshes from southern Florida to North Carolina and from the Atlantic to the Texas Gulf Coast and north into Arkansas, the alligator is frequently turning up as steak, sausage or gumbo in restaurants these days. …