Beefalo: A failed experiment (commentary)

From a food safety standpoint, ground bison burgers in restaurants may be worth the extra cost.

Dr. Richard Raymond 1, Consultant

August 21, 2016

6 Min Read
Beefalo: A failed experiment (commentary)

Those who know me know that I was an appointee by President George Bush to be Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA from 2005-2008.

Those who know me would then understand that I probably don’t agree with too many of the actions taken by President Obama, including leaving the Undersecretary for Food Safety position open for greater than half of his eight years in office.

But I do like what he did on May 9, 2016, when he signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, officially making the American bison the national mammal of the United States.

Most people call this animal a buffalo, and for the most part that is OK. But the purists know that buffalo only exist in Africa and Asia. In America, these majestic critters are known scientifically as Bison bison, or B. bison for short.

Joining the Bald Eagle as an official symbol of our country, these Bison also represent, as does the Eagle, a truly great success story in the saving of an endangered species.

Most readers, if not all, know that a couple hundred years ago tens of millions of bison roamed the prairies and mountains from Canada to Mexico, with some herds being 25 miles wide and 50 miles long.

Native Americans on the plains primarily existed by living on bison meat and organs. They ate a few berries, fruits and roots, but they did not plant crops and they did not do much fishing.

With the introduction of the horse by the Spaniards, in the 1600s, plains tribes became more mobile, migrating with the bison herds and chasing them down on horseback.

The introduction of the repeating rifle increased the kill rate by the Native Americans, but nothing compares to the introduction of a new tanning technique in 1870 that allowed bison hides to be turned into high-grade leather.

Combine that with a new railhead in Dodge City, and the first large-scale slaughter, in fact the largest slaughter of mammals in history, took place in 1871 and 1872.

A hunter named Tom Nixon once shot 120 animals in 40 minutes. They simply do not move if the animal next to them is dropped. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

‘Hunters with long range rifles often employed up to 15 men to do the skinning

In these two years, hunters working the Kansas plains close to Dodge City killed five million bison.

In Kansas alone the bones of 31 million bison were sold for fertilizer between 1868 and 1881.

Very few cried out against the slaughter of the bison; it was simply capitalism exploiting another natural resource.

In fact, some endorsed it as bison herd could stop a train for three days as the huge herd migrated across the tracks, often times destroying the tracks causing even further delays; plus the natural prairie grass was needed for grazing by the ever increasing cattle herds. 

And, quite frankly, the slaughter removed the main source for nutrition from the Native American population that threatened settlers and miners and helped to force them onto reservations.

General Phil Sheridan, then commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, articulated the government’s sentiments best when he said “These men (hunters) have done in the last two years…more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years.”

He went on to say “let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy.”

It appears it may have been a deliberate political act to not intervene in the decimation of the bison population.

Depending upon where you search for facts, the number of bison remaining at large by 1888 varies from less than 100 to 1,091, but regardless of the different numbers they are all with extermination being close at hand.

A few ranchers gathered up these remaining critters and tried to integrate them into their domestic cattle herds by primarily mating domestic bulls with bison cows.

They called the offspring Cattleo, today referred to as beefalo. They hoped to provide cattle that were more resistant to the ravaging blizzards of the plains states while producing bison that were meatier. It was a failure.

What they got were male offspring that were sterile, much higher C-Section rates and crossbred animals that showed no form of hybrid vigor.  

Dave Carter, Executive Director of the National Bison Association, told me what these ranchers got “was a cow with an attitude that could destroy conventional pens”.

The practice was abandoned and in fact is now prohibited for members of the National Bison Association in an attempt to purify the herds once again. The proportion of cattle DNA in bison herds today is quite low, ranging from 0.5% to 1.8%.

I was doing some consulting on the Business Advisory Board of Identigen, an Ireland based company that does testing of animals and their meat products for genetic purity at the time the European scandal hit that found some ground beef contained horse meat.

I suggested to Ronan Loftus, founder and President of Identigen, that we meet with Carter to introduce the idea that Identigen could test ground bison meat to prove its purity and cull out any product that someone was mixing beef trim into to boost profits.

Bad idea and wasted trip to Denver for Ronan. That was when I learned almost all bison raised for consumption will test positive for cattle DNA.

The largest pure herds are located in Yellowstone National Park, the Wind Cave Park in South Dakota and the Elk Island National Park in Alberta.

Bison in these areas remained in the wild in 1888 and were not known to be in existence, so that 100-1,000 estimate for bison living in 1888 is a little low.

Some bison have been moved from these Parks to smaller herds, so there are a few more than the three that are pure, but the three represent the clear majority of non-introgressed bison.

The large herd in the Black Hills of South Dakota that provides viewers with a spectacular sight during the annual Fall Round Up, is not an entirely pure herd, by the way.

Again, the numbers vary according to sources, but best estimates are that there around 500,000 bison in North America today, with 30,000 being in the wild and located mostly in the Parks listed above, with the others being raised for commerce eventually.

Ted Turner owns the largest herd that numbers 50,000, give or take a few hundred. 

According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, 100 g of bison meat contains 109 calories and 1.8 gram of fat while an equivalent amount and type of beef contains 291 calories and 24 grams of fat.

Of course the price can range from $2-4 more for a pound of ground bison vs. a pound of ground beef, but many consider it worth it.

What does all of this history have to do with food safety? Myself, from a food safety standpoint, I will pay the extra expense when offered ground bison burgers in restaurants.

Why, you may ask? Because I don’t trust others to always cook my burger to a measured 160 degrees.

And why is that important to me? Because there has only been one recall of ground bison for E coli O157:H7, and I have been told by the owner of the plant that that recall was more than a little shaky as far as conclusive evidence.  

By the way, if you go to a National or International Bison Association meeting, cowboy boots, big belt buckle and blue jeans are mandatory. Ten gallon hat is optional. Wear a Brooks Brothers Suit and you will be denied admittance. 

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