Commentary: Re-defining the idea of ‘exotic’

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You probably didn’t know that a special week kicks off next month: National Alpaca Week.

Not here, but in Australia, where the rangy native animals of the South American Andes, which are traditionally bred for their fleece—described as “soft, durable and luxurious”—are now being raised not only as a source of fiber but increasingly as a source of food.

In fact, if you believe the Australian Alpaca Association, the meat is extremely lean and tastes somewhere between lamb and veal, and apparently, demand for their meat is growing quickly in Australia.

That’s not shocking. Although there are plenty of folks Down Under who recoil from the idea of chowing down on Skippy, Aussies already can purchase kangaroo meat, maybe not as a staple but as an option in the meat cases of most major supermarket chains there. Adding alpaca to the household menu isn’t such a stretch in a country that’s home to more than 100 million sheep, the majority of which are raised for fleece.

Here, it would be different. I mean, can you imagine trying to market kangaroo meat here in the States? You think the idea of eating “beautiful, noble horses” kicked off a backlash, the idea of frying up a kangaroo would be considered much less appetizing, bizarre, even.

Listen to the producers over there, however, and it’s a different story.

In an online story from the Australian Broadcasting Company, titled, “Fancy Fleece, or Fine Meat?” Ian Frith, a farmer and alpaca breeder in New South Wales, put it succinctly: “The only way to exist [as an alpaca farmer], is we've got to be able to use the animal all the way through. You use the fleece, use the genetics and then also use the meat and hides. That way, it’s a sustainable commercial farming enterprise.”

Although he said he’s only been marketing alpaca meat for less than two years, Firth claimed that his operation has sold “in excess of 10 tons of meat.” By the end of 2013, he told ABC, “We’ll be well close to 20 tons of alpaca meat delivered to restaurants, hotels and the [super]markets.”

Building demand at home

Alpaca meat is high in iron and protein, low in fat and cholesterol and can be fabricated into strip loin, rump, shoulder roll and back strap, and the rack is supposedly as succulent as rack of lamb. Most often the legs are smoked as a deli or foodservice item, then vacuum-packaged for extended shelf life.Even the heart, kidneys and the liver are marketed.

Best of all, though, Firth said he cannot begin to export any alpaca meat—not yet; local demand is too strong.

“We’ve had overseas orders but I can’t fill them," he told ABC. “I want to make sure we’ve got a sustainable market here, and that we can support it, because if you don’t supply [local buyers], they'll soon drop you like a hot potato.”

Although alpacas, like lamas, are exotic looking and occasionally hard to handle, they don’t create nearly the same logistical challenges as many other exotic livestock, like bison or ostriches. Breeding stock that provides the best genetics for confirmation and for meat quality now sell at auction for six figures apiece. Firth claimed he has one stud insured for $250,000.

As is true with sheep, the best breeds that yield the highest quality fleece, do not necessarily offer the best meat yield, and vice versa. For most breeders, the taller, rangier Huacaya breed is preferred over the Suri breed, considered a producer of silkier, finer quality fleece.

But aside from the details, this story made me wonder: Would it even be possible to embark on a “new” livestock industry here in the United States? After all, Australia’s not all that much different from the USA: Same language, similar history of European settlement, a nation that embraces its national sports and its recreational assets. The population has a high level of literacy, educational attainment and a modern political system. With some variations, their lifestyles are shaped by the same high-tech communications and entertainment options we have.

It’s not like Aussies live in some other world.

On the issue of exotic animal agriculture and the marketing of meat from those livestock, however, maybe they do.

Maybe they do.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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