Food April 2010

Outback Steakhouse

Australia’s bush meat is tasty, healthy, and enviro-friendly. But can you get people to eat it?
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Garry Dann nudged the steak in the rusty electric frying pan at his meat store in Alice Springs, a town in central Australia far from everything except desert. He pushed aside the bottle of canola oil next to the pan. “It’s a great cut. You don’t need to add anything, just cook it in its own fat,” he said.

It tasted like a juicier version of beef. But the meat in question was camel—freshly slaughtered at Dann’s abattoir, Centralian Gold, which he has been running, off and on, since 1986. In that time, the population of Australian camels has escalated to plague proportions, and Dann believes that selling their meat could become a multimillion-dollar industry.

Camels were first brought to Australia from the Canary Islands in the 1840s as beasts of burden. They carried goods across the harsh, Martian-red desert. As roads were built, they were gradually released into the wild. Now Australian camels make up the largest wild herd in the world, numbering about a million. With no natural predators, they are expected to double in population every decade.

Like most foreign species introduced into Australia’s delicate ecosystem, camels have wreaked havoc. They feed on roughly 80 percent of Australia’s plant species, and have pushed some to the brink of extinction. In their search for water, they soil Aboriginal drinking holes, destroy everything from fences to air conditioners, and cause more than $12 million worth of damage each year. In response, the Australian government plans to cull 349,000 of them, at a cost of $17 million.

Dann thinks this is a waste of potentially valuable meat. He concedes that camel is still a novelty in Australia, but he sees a lucrative market in the Middle East, where it’s widely accepted. If he wins government approval to export, he aims to up the number of animals he slaughters each week from 20 to 300. “It’s a good meat, low in cholesterol,” he said. “I would hate to see it go to the worms.”

Purveyors of Australia’s other bush meat—kangaroo—are also struggling to increase demand. In August 2009, Russian importers—who made up 70 percent of the export market, and used the meat mainly as filler in dumplings and sausages—started canceling their orders after finding strands of E. coli in several shipments.

Now the industry is looking homeward. Since 1993, when Australia legalized kangaroo for human consumption, efforts to promote it have been sporadic. But experts from a wide range of fields have recently started extolling the beast’s benefits. In 2008, Australia’s chief adviser on climate change argued that kangaroos could offer a competitive advantage to the country’s livestock industry, as global warming wreaks havoc on cow and sheep populations. Environmental groups waxed lyrical about the marsupial’s low methane emissions, and dieticians advocated the gamey meat for its low fat content and high levels of zinc, iron, and linoleic acid.

But for all the hype, the industry has never developed much of a local following. One 2008 report found that only 14.5 percent of Australians eat kangaroo more than four times a year. Domestically, it’s used mostly for pet food. “There needs to be more brand recognition,” said Barbara Wilson, the CEO of Safefood Queensland, a government agency. “It should really be put on a show like MasterChef, to encourage people to cook with it.”

Wilson concedes that industry practices also need to change. Unlike camels, which are killed in abattoirs, kangaroos are mostly killed by small-scale hunters, who are harder to regulate and don’t necessarily follow sanitary standards.

The camel-meat sector faces its own economic challenges. The market price of the meat is too low to support the cost of transporting it across the country, according to Gordon Grigg of Queensland University. And many camels roam in remote locations accessible only by air, which makes them costly to herd for slaughter.

Nonetheless, Dann is confident about his product: “I’ll admit they aren’t the most attractive animals to look at, but they are just as good as any other meat.” And, he points out, they have a critical advantage over kangaroos: with camels, you’re not eating something on Australia’s coat of arms.

Marina Kamenev is a writer in Sydney, Australia.
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Marina Kamenev is a Sydney-based journalist.

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