Murphy: Deer in the Spotlight

Most corporate ad campaigns are thoughtfully developed and professionally executed.

However, some that achieve iconic status are eventually traced back to pure happenstance. Sheer serendipity. The whims of Lady Luck.

One of the best examples of the latter is the ongoing advertisements for Arby’s restaurants, highlighted by the tagline “We Have the Meats.”® It’s a strong, visceral statement that beautifully positions the chain against the trend that other foodservice operators have embraced, to go lighter, leaner and decidedly less meat-centric on the menuboards.

But that notion arose when a customer fatefully asked one store manager for a sandwich that included every meat item on the menu, leading to the test marketing and eventual lionization of the Meat Mountain sandwich, one that just about every teen-aged boy I know of has boasted about ordering at one point in time.

The success of focusing on meat — and Arby’s offers a rich selection, from smoked brisket to Angus beef to peppered bacon to roast turkey to corned beef, among other selections — has been rousing.

And this fall, the chain brought back a unique and popular meat in the form of a venison sandwich.

According to a Business Insider report, Arby's locations across the U.S. last month sold a $7, thick-cut venison sandwich with crispy onions topped with a juniper berry sauce.

But talk about the proverbial “limited time only.” The venison sandwich was available only on Oct. 21, and eager diners were advised by the company that the sandwiches would “sell out quickly, so check your local store hours and arrive early if you want to get one.”

The one-day event followed last year’s introduction of a thick-cut venison steak sandwich in five states as a way to appeal to American hunters. Those sandwiches sold so well, an Arby’s official reported, that the restaurant chain expanded the operation this year.

“The positive response to our limited offering of venison last year was so widespread and passionate that we knew we had to find a way to offer it nationwide," Jim Taylor, Arby's Restaurant Group chief marketing officer, said in a statement.

A Beef with Venison
This year, as expected, the venison sandwiches sold out quickly at many Arby’s locations, but while corporate was happy, other groups were not.

Earlier in October, according to National Public Radio, the Montana Wildlife Federation sent a letter to Arby’s asking the franchise not to sell deer meat sandwiches. The hunting and conservation group’s executive director cited the issues of America’s “wildlife crisis in the 19th century,” which drove many species to near-extinction, and “The principle of selling an animal that most Montanans recognize and hold dear as a wild animal and a symbol of the Rocky Mountain West.”

Arby’s management responded by noting that the meat used in its venison sandwiches was not obtained from domestic hunting, but was procured from game farms in New Zealand.

And therein lies the problem, according to the federation.

In its letter, the federation stated that selling venison sandwiches could lead to “an increase in game farming practices,” which it said have been “proven to impact the health of wild herds and privatize a public resource,” noting that, “Elk and deer are best left as wild, free-ranging animals that are part of the public trust.”

“There is a real danger in marketing wildlife as a commodity like this,” Nick Gevock, Montana Wildlife Federation conservation director, said in a statement. “This runs counter to Montana’s fair-chase hunting values by encouraging the commercialization of a public wildlife resource.”

Game farms are illegal in Montana, thanks to a citizen initiative passed in 2000, and there is a legitimate concern about game farms spreading chronic wasting disease or other diseases from domesticated stock to wildlife.

Plus, Montanans don’t have the same problems with overpopulation of deer herds that is endemic in the Midwest and many regions back East.

But I’ve visited an elk operation in Alberta, Canada, and it’s about a close as possible to raising animals with the opportunity to “perform natural behaviors.” The elk browse on forage and brush, as elk normally do, roam quite a large area without much contact with humans, and are eventually herded via giant funnel-shaped fencing into pens.

The meat is lean, nutritious and quite tasty, although much stronger than some 80/20 ground beef patty. And that operation had about as small a carbon footprint as it’s possible to have with livestock, so on both animal welfare and environmental impact, elk farming, at least as practiced in Alberta, is as eco-friendly as it gets.

The problem with the Montana Wildlife Federation’s protest is that is demonizes venison, and by extension, lends credence to the anti-hunting activists who want to ban the sport altogether — on behalf of the poor, suffering deer, of course.

In its charter, the federation styles itself as, “A conservation organization founded in 1936 by hunters, anglers, landowners, and other conservationists concerned about the loss of Montana’s natural lands, healthy waters, and abundant wildlife.”

I’d ask this question: As an organization founded (in part) by hunters, why throw shade on venison?

Don’t they realize those sandwiches are the closest most people will ever get to appreciating wildlife?

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.