The appearance of imported water buffalo meat on U.S. retail shelves has alarmed U.S. bison producers, who worry the product isn’t being inspected or properly labeled.
The National Bison Association has requested an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after discovering Australian water buffalo meat sold simply as “wild ground buffalo” through a 200-store grocery chain along the East Coast.
In North America, the word “buffalo” commonly conjures up images of native bison roaming the prairies, not foreign livestock, said Dave Carter, the NBA’s executive director.
The mislabeling problem is worrisome for the bison industry because there are only about 400,000 native bison in the U.S. and Canada, compared to nearly 100 million water buffalo in India alone, Carter said.
“There’s a lot more water buffalo meat than there is bison meat,” he said.
Since the ground water buffalo costs about $2 per pound less than ground bison, which typically sells for $7 per pound, that creates a competitive concern for the domestic industry, Carter said.
“We could be seeing the tip of the ice berg right now,” he said.
Native bison producers don’t object to the importation or sale of water buffalo meat into the U.S. as long as it’s properly labeled as such, Carter said.
Water buffalo has a distinctly different taste than native bison, with which many U.S. consumers are only now becoming familiar, he said.
There’s also the matter of reputational harm in case of a food safety crisis.
As wild game, bison and water buffalo aren’t required to undergo USDA inspection, though most bison growers prefer to have their meat voluntarily inspected by the agency, Carter said.
The water buffalo from Australia was inspected in that country and processed in an FDA-approved facility in New Jersey, but wasn’t actually federally inspected, he said.
“If someone gets sick, guess who gets the black eye?” he said.
A spokeswoman for Thomas Foods International, which produces the ground water buffalo meat in question, said the company “appreciates this opportunity but we’re not able to assist with an interview this time around.”
The National Bison Association recently got some reinforcement in its attempt to draw awareness to the issue, with five U.S. Senators signing a bipartisan letter asking FDA to prioritize investigation of the group’s mislabeling complaint.
“With a growing water buffalo industry worldwide, failure to do so will create an opportunity for additional uninspected, mislabeled products to be marketed in the U.S.,” said the letter.
A spokeswoman for FDA confirmed receiving the letter and said the agency would respond directly to the lawmakers.
Carter said his organization first became aware of the water buffalo problem a year ago, when it noticed the meat listed in high-end pet food ingredients.
“People like feeding Fluffy and Fido the same thing they like eating themselves,” he said.
For example, the group has identified a Taste of the Wild brand of “High Prairie Formula” for dogs showing a bison on the package but whose top ingredient was water buffalo, Carter said. Bison was the ninth ingredient listed on the label.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials has been responsive to the organization’s concerns and has established a working group to examine the issue, he said.
Alexia Heldman, veterinary affairs director for Taste of the Wild, said the company initially began producing the “High Prairie Formula” solely with bison meat more than a decade ago.
The formula has since become the company’s number one recipe, requiring the importation of water buffalo meat from India because not enough native bison meat was available, she said.
“We simply couldn’t come up with enough bison,” Heldman said.
The company kept the same label design with which consumers are familiar but believes it’s in compliance with federal regulations because the ingredients are clearly listed, she said.
The water buffalo from India are raised on pasture without antibiotics or hormones and Taste of the Wild is confident in the meat’s safety, she said.