Exotic meat demand rising as chefs cater to the latest foodie craze

Demand for exotic meat appears to be rising and some industry insiders and watchers say that's likely to continue as foodie culture grows.

Demand for meats such as wild boar, elk, squab and camel is surging

Exotic meat cuts such aselk and wild boar are a small but growing part of the business at Sanagan's Meat Locker butcher shop in Toronto. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Once a week Peter Sanagan brings a whole wild boar carcass to his Toronto butcher shop. He divvies it up into chops and other cuts, selling it to adventurous eaters who wander into the Kensington Market store.

While more familiar meats like beef and pork account for up to 90 per cent of sales at Sanagan's Meat Locker, the remainder comes from people seeking so-called exotic meats like wild boar. Game birds are popular, too.

"When in season, we'll have things ... like pheasants and partridges and squabs, wild turkey," Sanagan says.

Though exotic meat consumption is not well tracked, demand for it appears to be rising and some industry insiders and watchers say that's likely to continue as foodie culture grows.

Growing market

In Canada, consumption of less traditional meats like horse, venison, camel, rabbit and game grew an average of 10.6 per cent a year between 2010 and 2015, according to estimates from market research firm Euromonitor International.

Euromonitor's numbers exclude some meats many would consider exotic, like buffalo and guinea fowl, which fall under different categories it tracks. The firm doesn't have consumption estimates for meats like ostrich, zebra or bison.

Fine-dining restaurants are the main drivers of these types of meats' surge in popularity, according to Michael von Massow, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph's department of food, agricultural and resource economics.

Diners are seeking a culinary experience they can't get at home, he says. That means the nice pasta dishes that impressed a decade ago are out, thanks to the Food Network churning out home cooks.

"Restaurants are pushing the envelope to try and give us an experience," says von Massow.

Canadian chefs have been experimenting with horse, quail, kangaroo and other meats. Toronto restaurant The Beast, for example, allows customers to pick from a list of animals, like water buffalo or elk, and will create a six-course tasting menu using the whole animal.

But it's not just chefs wanting to experiment with different proteins.

Shai Bomze, director of sales for Toronto meat distributor La Ferme, says that while his company mainly supplies exotic meats to fine-dining restaurants, they do supply some of their product to high-end butcher shops and privately owned grocery stores.

A pricey new hobby

These types of products come with premium price tags. At Sanagan's Meat Locker, its owner says wild boar costs between $12 and $22 a pound, venison and elk runs $18 to $30 a pound depending on the cut, and game birds range from $15 to $30 a piece based on size.

Bomze attributes some of the demand for exotic meats to Canada's multicultural population, saying some of these products are considered staples in various cultures present in the country. La Ferme's most popular exotic meats include duck, bison and venison, he says.

Mainstream grocery chains have also gotten into the exotic meats game.

Loblaw, for instance, sells elk, venison, bison and wild boar at some of its grocery stores — and the company has seen an increase in sales year-over-year for these products, a Loblaw spokesperson said in an email.

"Canadians are looking to mix it up in the kitchen," noted Sal Baio, senior vice-president of Market Fresh at Loblaw, in a statement. "Their popularity may be due to specialty food programs, innovative restaurant menus and the proliferation of food-focused social media."

Those "culinary adventurers" are definitely helping to drive retail demand, agrees von Massow.

"I think we are seeing an emergence of a Canadian food culture," he says.

"More people are ... cooking for taste and entertainment, rather than just for fuel."


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