Grassfed buffalo: something to chew on

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I had a lovely dinner last night at the Grand Café: cauliflower soup with a fig gastrique; pan-seared scallops with porcini-potato pave, and lean slices of medium rare bison (buffalo) top sirloin with lentils, bathed in a fig and port wine demi-glace. Then this morning, I happened to see the full-page ad in the New York Times for Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Pollan wrote the best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma, which takes a critical look at our overly industrialized food system.

The new book is billed as The Omnivore’s Solution, and the dozen recommendations in the ad start with

1. Don’t eat anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,

and ends with

12. Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.

But it was recommendation #9 that caught my eye:

9. Eat food from animals that eat grass.

I’d read the literature about this before: meat from grass-fed is lower in calories and higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, which is supposed to reduce your risk of cancer. And grass-fed animals have a much smaller environmental impact that animals raised on corn.

That made me curious about last night’s bison: was it grass-fed or grain-fed? Ordinarily, I would have simply assumed that buffalo are raised on grass, but a recent letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books claimed otherwise: the writer had done a little research and discovered that a lot of buffalo sold in supermarkets (including Trader Joe’s) is actually raised on corn. Apparently, a lot of consumers like the idea of buffalo, but like the flavor of corn-fed meat.

Our hostess, Mary Hunter, who owns the café with her husband Dan, had told me that the bison came from Venison America, a family-owned business in Hudson, WI. According to their website, their bison comes is raised in Minnesota by a supplier who “feeds the bison grains and grasses but also supplements this with a weekly ration of whey from their cheese factory.” The website does claim that their bison is still a lot leaner than beef:

” Bison has per 3.5 ounce serving: 143 calories and 2.42 grams of fat.
Choice Beef has per 3.5 ounce serving: 211 calories and 9.28 grams of fat.”

There aren’t a lot of buffalo producers in Minnesota, and even fewer who own cheese factories, so the producer in question had to be Eichten’s Hidden Acres, which raises buffalo and produces cheese. Steve Loppnow, the owner of Venison America confirmed that Eichten’s is the supplier, and said that while the buffalo spend most of their lives eating grass, in the last 30 days before slaughter, they are fed a diet of oat silage, alfalfa, and “a little bit of corn, not a huge amount because corn is really expensive.”

Loppnow said that if restaurants want bison that is purely grass-fed, he can supply it, from an organic producer in Rice Lake, WI, but it’s more expensive – and he added that the fat from grass-fed beef is not as palatable as the fat from animals that have had some corn in their diet.

Bottom line: that bison sirloin at the Grand Cafe was from an animal who consumed some corn, but a lot less than the typical feedlot steer.

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