Is bison or buffalo meat as good or better than beef?
March 18, 2010 6:14 PM   Subscribe

Does bison or buffalo meat have the same drawbacks as beef?

I'm referring to questions of production/processing, feed, growth hormones, use of resources/environmental impact, etc. more than whether or not there are healthier things to eat than cows. Basically, does it go through the same sort of process as what is described in Fast Food Nation and the like?
posted by Kirk Grim to Food & Drink (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It depends what brand you're talking about. There are cattle ranchers who practice more sustainable techniques than some bison ranchers, and vice versa.
posted by Think_Long at 6:21 PM on March 18, 2010

Bison is generally free range and grass fed, not to mention way lower in fat than beef.

A little personal disclosure: once I'd read both Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemna, I stopped eating at chain restaurants entirely, cut back on my red meat intake quite a bit (and don't miss it), and turned into a serious locavore. I won't buy or eat meat anymore that isn't grass fed and hormone free. Grass fed bison/buffalo still makes the cut for me (sorry about he pun), at least when I see it in my local markets.
posted by bearwife at 6:23 PM on March 18, 2010

Bison, in my experience, is more filling than beef, and it's actually better for you. It has a different taste - I'm certainly not a culinary expert, but I'd describe it as a mild sort of "zip" that differentiates it from beef. That was probably a horribly inadequate description - but you'll know what I mean when you taste it. Bison meat has not been subjected to the pressures of commercial ag producers to the extent that normal beef has, in my opinion.

By all means, try it out and see what you think.
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 6:31 PM on March 18, 2010

keep in mind bison and buffalo are indiginous to north america . So it cant be as bad as cows are.
posted by majortom1981 at 8:48 PM on March 18, 2010

I've definitely eaten it before, and I agree it's a little bit different than beef, but not as much as some people say--especially if you're making burgers. When I've cooked it, it didn't come out any drier or tougher than beef (a common criticism I've heard), but it cooks faster and I'm told has about 1/3 less fat. I'm actually thinking of switching altogether now that I live near a place with a good consistent supply, but was just curious about the process through which it gets to my supermarket. So there's no "factory farm" bison or anything?
posted by Kirk Grim at 9:05 PM on March 18, 2010

It is prohibited in the U.S. to use growth hormones on bison. (I'm not sure why though, just grateful.) So there's that, for starters.

Most bison eat grass rather than corn, which is better in the sense of involving far less fertilizers. However, a lot of pastureland (particularly in higher latitudes) is artificially irrigated, which has its own set of problems, but at least grass takes a whole lot less water than corn.

Virtually all bison ranching operations that I'm aware of are free-range. One of the benefits of ranching bison, as opposed to cattle, is that they don't require barns. They're quite happy standing around in the snow, and would probably just demolish any building you tried to keep them cooped up in anyway. (They require substantially higher and sturdier fences, though...)

I really can't think of any downsides to eating bison versus domesticated cattle, except that beef is (artificially, Pollan would tell you) cheaper, and many Americans are conditioned to prefer the taste of corn-fed, feedlot-fattened beef. Bison meat is leaner and in general tougher; it lends itself to different cooking techniques. I don't actually think that the taste is all that different from grass-fed beef — I think the difference between corn-fed and grass-fed beef is greater than between grass-fed beef and bison, but YMMV. I find it absolutely delicious, personally.

If you decide to switch to bison, you'll probably want to do more braising and less dry roasting, and more ground sausage and burgers (which give you the opportunity to add fat) rather than seared steaks. There are some cuts of bison which are tender enough to sear and eat directly, but the majority of the animal isn't and as a result those few cuts command a premium price as they are most sought-after by restaurants.

You may find the FAQ at the National Bison Association informative. (The National Bison Association is an organization of bison producers/ranchers.)

Supposedly, there are bison in all 50 states (those Hawaii bison must be a bit out of their element) so you ought to be able to get some that is local, if you want to do that. However, just by eating an animal that's at least native to this continent and raised in a way that at least bears a passing resemblance to its natural lifecycle is going to put you way ahead on the Michael Pollan scale than any sort of beef.

Also, "bison" and "buffalo" — in US English — get used interchangeably and refer to the same thing. "Bison," specifically "American bison," is perhaps more correct, since in other parts of the world "buffalo" refers to a very different animal.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:11 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

So there's no "factory farm" bison or anything?

Everything I've read suggests that such a thing wouldn't work very well. Bison aren't tame, and having seen them get aggressive towards each other, I can't imagine confinement would leave you with many live animals (or much of a farm). I've seen people attempt to just move bison off of a road and it looked like herding cats. Ill-tempered, Volkswagen-sized cats. (And they jump almost like cats, too. You wouldn't expect something that big to be able to leap that high...but they do, somehow.)

The National Bison Association recommends to prospective ranchers that "the animals respond best in low-pressure, low stress conditions" and "Bison are much more nervous and excitable in close quarters. Work bison slower and calmer than you would other stock. Handling facilities will need to be stronger and taller than pasture fences." I sense a certain amount of understatement there.

Supposedly, Wyoming is the only state that has regulations on its books for bison CAFOs, although the same article notes that there aren't any in operation (just beef, swine, and poultry), so it's really just theoretical. A CAFO is defined as a place that keeps animals at such a density there isn't any vegetation (to differentiate it, I suppose, from a traditional ranch or pasture).

So I think that's a "no," if you mean CAFO by 'factory farm.'

Incidentally, the biggest bison ranching operation in the world is Ted Turner's. One would think that as the biggest it would be the most likely to be factory-farmy...but it seems pretty decent. They claim: "Bison are handled as little as possible. They spend most of their lives on grass, much as they always have, with little time on a concentrated feed ration." (After that it's the standard National Bison Association line.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:42 PM on March 18, 2010

keep in mind bison and buffalo are indiginous to north america . So it cant be as bad as cows are.

Are you implying that a cow feed lot in Europe, Asia, or Africa wouldn't be as bad because that is the ancient range of the auroch?

There are bison feedlots where they are pumped full of grain just like there are for cows. In fact all North American Bison Cooperative members are required to feedlot finish their animals for 100+ days before slaughter.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:30 AM on March 19, 2010

If you "live near a place with a good constant supply", as you say, then a bit part of your question isn't about bison in general vs beef in general, but about where your particular supply is coming from. Look up your brand online, or ask your supplier.
posted by aimedwander at 6:35 AM on March 19, 2010

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