Of all the hype in a food industry rapidly expanding its marketing mix 25 years ago, few product launches ever rose and fell as quickly as meat from the world"s fastest animal on two legs.
What ever happened to ostrich?
I don"t mean the bird itself; they"re still around. I mean the red meat derived from those stately creatures.
Back in the 1990s, ostrich farming was being eagerly touted as the next big thing as big as the birds themselves, which can top eight feet at maturity. The meat was positioned as highly nutritious, low in fat and bright red like beef, not pasty white like poultry, and the business of raising and marketing ostrich meat and leather to processors, and eggs and chicks to the next get-rich-quick rancher was sold as a surefire winner.
Then the Millennium arrived, and as fast as the threat of a Y2K meltdown vaporized, the gangly, iconic ratite apparently disappeared along with it.
In 2002, USDA"s Census of Agriculture noted that 1,643 farmers were commercially raising a total of 20,560 ostriches. Just five years later, that number had dwindled to only about 700 growers who marketed just under 6,000 birds.
Oh sure, there are still plenty of online outfits, those "exotic, organic purveyors," offering "tender, tasty easy-to-prepare ostrich meat," which they"re quick to explain has only "half the fat of chicken and as much iron as beef."
And apparently prices that reflect its exoticness, because a 6-ounce ostrich steak typically retails for about $35 a pound. Tax and shipping not included.
Lifting an import ban
Ostrich is back in the news now, because the European Union recently lifted a four-year ban on imports of fresh ostrich meat from South Africa, following that country"s certification as bird-flu-free. Over the years, ostrich meat had become a trendy and popular substitute for beef across Europe as a result of the BSE crisis the continent suffered during the 1980s and 1990s.
South Africa, of course, is the flightless bird"s original native home, where the industry there now cultivates production operations large enough to employ more than 50,000 people, according to Alan Winde, the minister of economic development for South Africa"s Western Cape provincial government.
"Resuming exports to the EU will play an important role in increasing the number of jobs in this industry," Winde told Reuters.
That would be a welcome turnaround, because in 2011 more than 10,000 ostriches were culled in the southern Cape regions, where the industry is concentrated, after diseased birds with avian influenza were detected in the area. Since then, new biosecurity measures, such as chlorinating water and restricting movement of the birds, has suppressed further outbreaks.
By the way, did you know that even though they can weigh more than 400 pounds, ostriches can sprint at 40 miles an hour, the world"s fastest two-legged animal? Or that they"ve been known kill a lion with one powerful kick? Or that even though they can"t fly, they use their massive wings as rudders to quickly change direction while running?
In the wild, ostriches will eat just about anything plants, lizards, seeds, insects. While in captivity, they have a favorable 2:1 feed-to-gain ratio. They mature in only 12 to 14 months, and each bird yields about 70 pounds of meat and as much as 14 square feet of leather. They"re hardy, relatively trouble-free (just don"t get within kicking range) and their meat is, in fact, quite flavorful and nutritious. I know: I had my share, back in that golden era of videocassettes, fax machines and long-distance price wars … and ostrich burgers at six bucks apiece.
So what happened to the next big opportunity for America"s independent ranchers and marketers? I think Mother Earth News, the all-time champion of DIY, live-off-the-land entrepreneurship, got it right in a 1997 article when the magazine cautioned that, "The investment for successful ostrich farming can be substantial, and the payoff in a changing market is not guaranteed."
That was straight from the story, not some fine-print disclaimer at the end.
The article continued, "There will be considerable consolidation of production in the next few years and many small operators will leave the business."
Good call, but you don"t have to be Nostradamus to predict that a market based on a Ponzi-like system of selling high-priced eggs and starter chicks to newcomers for as much as 10 grand a pair won"t last too long if there"s no way for the newbies to sell the resulting product at a profit.
Here"s how the executive director of the American Ostrich Association analyzed his industry"s fortunes at the time: "Exaggeration and hype permeated the ostrich industry, as promoters oversold the advantages of investment in this fledgling business."
When an industry"s leadership is calling out the participants, you can be sure it"s a business that ain"t gonna fly.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.