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Add Venison to the Grocery List : New Zealand to Target Nutrition-Minded U.S. Shoppers

Times Staff Writer

American shoppers who have become accustomed to seeing New Zealand lamb in the meat case of their supermarkets will soon find it accompanied by farm-raised venison from the South Pacific island nation.

“We think we have an interesting product, and we can use the healthy characteristics of venison to create awareness of this,” Michael Pattison, who heads the New Zealand Deer Farmers Assn., said during a stop in Los Angeles, the U.S.’ leading venison market.

The “healthy characteristics,” Pattison explained, include having the calories of a skinned chicken breast, the fat of a broiled salmon, the cholesterol of steamed halibut or broiled bass and the protein of a lean pork roast. Pattison is counting on this nutritional profile to attract consumers elsewhere across the country to New Zealand venison, which now is found mainly in a relative handful of trendy restaurants and grills on the two coasts and in Chicago.

Deer Population Boomed

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New Zealand exported about 4,000 metric tons of venison last year, including more than 90% of the venison consumed in the United States, Pattison said. Although a handful of farmers raise deer in Texas and New York, the New Zealander maintained that his country has “at least a five-year head start” on would-be competitors because of the time needed to develop and expand domesticated herds.

Venison’s new-found status as a valued product for exportation in a country heavily dependent on foreign trade--half of which is agricultural--represents just the latest chapter in the curious history of the deer in New Zealand. Since the animal’s introduction in the mid-19th Century to furnish game for expatriate Scot and English hunters, it has alternated between being good sport, farm pest and prized resource.

For all the lush vegetation covering New Zealand’s two major islands, the country is the natural home only of the wingless kiwi, now the national bird, the rare Maori rat, and two kinds of bat. Unrestrained by predators, the wild deer population grew to menacing proportions and, as recently as the early 1970s, the animals were targets of bounty hunters paid by the government to destroy deer as “noxious pests.”

Enterprising hunters took to airplanes in 1959 to increase their reach. They shifted to more flexible helicopters a few years later, and one airborne crew claimed to have slaughtered 198 animals in two days.

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Then the opening of a tiny export market for game in West Germany encouraged a handful of farmers to attempt to raise deer. They were aided by OPEC’s oil embargo in 1972-73, which temporarily reduced the profitability of hunting by helicopter. By the time fuel prices declined, farmers were hiring pilots to capture deer alive to speed development of their herds.

In 1975, a handful of these farmers formed the association headed by Pattison to protect the fledgling industry, which today counts more than 4,000 farms and a total herd approaching 650,000 head.

In the association’s early years, members found their attention diverted as their animals suddenly became valued not for their meat but for the fuzzy, blood-filled skin called “velvet” that encloses sprouting antlers. The price of velvet, prized in a number of Asian markets--especially by Koreans--as a basic ingredient in traditional medicines, soared to $120 a pound by 1980.

Suddenly, the formerly “noxious” animals became more valuable alive than dead.

But the velvet boom faded after the Chinese began diverting some of their own velvet production to North and South Korea. New Zealand deer farmers came to realize, Pattison said, that the time had come to treat their herds not as a temporary alternative to lower-valued field crops but as part of mainstream agriculture.

Not Like Wild Venison

The result was construction of a network of modern slaughter houses equipped to meet the highest international standards, Pattison said, and today New Zealand is the world’s largest producer of farm-raised venison.

Although a number of European countries--among them Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia--produce as much wild venison as New Zealand’s farm-raised version, Pattison sees the tougher and gamier-flavored meat as more limited in appeal to the broader consumer market that the deer farmers aim to reach, both in the United States and in Europe.

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“This is not the stuff Uncle Fred shot and hung for a few weeks, marinated for days and cooked for hours,” he said. “That’s what venison used to be.”

Farm-raised venison is very different and can be cooked without moisture--even barbecued or broiled over mesquite. The golden rule, according to Pattison: “Don’t overcook it!”


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