A number of ‘exotic’ meats have appeared in recent years, using direct-to-consumer marketing to find their niche. But one of the latest entrants, unfortunately, is off-target with its positioning.
Now for something completely different: Yak meat.
Although the average American couldn’t tell a yak from a yeti, some ranchers in South Dakota are apparently intent on building a market for the product.
True, yak meat is higher in omega 3 fatty acids than comparable proteins (most game meat is), and it has been described as quite palatable, even if overcooked.
“It’s really juicy,” South Dakotan rancher Jim Anderson, who’s been raising yaks since 2010, told the Rapid City Journal. “When you cook it, it doesn’t dry out like buffalo [meat] does.”
Yak meat, which Anderson characterized as “delicate, even sweet,” is also comparatively low in cholesterol and saturated fat. “It’s very lean, as well, being 95 to 97 percent fat-free,” he said.
Okay, before continuing with analyzing the viability of yak, a few words about the fat-free concept: It has failed. It’s over. Stop already with trying to sell consumers on how hard you’re working to help them avoid the “horrors” of eating — gasp! — eff-aye-tee. Both the first and second generations of so-called “fat-free” meat products were roundly rejected by consumers. Why? Because they tasted terrible and had the mouthfeel of oatmeal mush.
Worse, any marketer who tries to stay onboard the fat-free train is making a long-term, grievous error by pandering to the false notion that fat calories are bad, whereas other calories are healthier. Taking that stance condemns the industry to a lifetime of playing prevent defense, trying to position meat products as somehow lower in fat than common wisdom might suggest.
Here’s some more effective wisdom: Nature put fat into animal foods because we need the fatty acids as part of healthy diet, both as children and as adults. To pretend that we’re smarter than Nature, and we can trim, separate and otherwise remove fat from the processed foods we’ve convinced ourselves are just as good (and way more convenient!) than natural foods — beef, pork, milk, eggs — and the balance of fat and protein they contain.
Tried it, and loved it
That’s one problem with marketing yak as leaner and greener, the other being the name itself. Its point of difference seems to be less about nutrition and more about eating quality.
Anderson, whose family have raised buffalo for 36 years, according to the newspaper, became a yak rancher after a friend convinced him to sample the meat. When he tried it, he was sold, he said.
“The night we tried yak meat, my granddaughters came right up and asked for seconds,” Anderson said. “That impressed me.”
According to the story, Anderson now raises 100 head of yak, which are marketed through Dakota Grass Fed Meats LLC. The meat, which is USDA inspected, is processed at a locker plant in Elkton, S.D.
The article also quoted Julie Smoragiewicz, the owner of Yak Ridge Cabin and Farmsteads in Rapid City, S.D., who has also begin raising yaks.
“[Yak meat] has a very delicate flavor,” she said. “It’s not gamey like venison or antelope.”
Smoragiewicz he also explained that yak is higher in sodium than other red meats, which helps retain moisture during cooking. “So the meat ends up being juicier, but from water and not fat.”
Again, with the fear of fat. I can’t object more strongly to that kind of positioning.
A better approach would be to emphasize the environmental benefits of yak husbandry. According to the ranchers, yak are strictly grassfed and require only about one-third of the food intake that cattle do, which suggests a positive response on the dreaded “cattle are causing climate change” meme.
If I were outlining a marketing campaign, that would be the place to start. Knowing that yak will always be — at best — a niche product for a small slice of the meat-eating public, I would worry less about side-by-side nutritional comparisons against beef or pork and focus on yak meat as an eco-conscious option for productively using semi-dry grasslands, such as what you’d find in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Yak are hardy, disease-resistant, efficient and environmentally friendly animals. Allowing them to roam across a ranch in South Dakota is about as natural as livestock production can get. And their hairy hides yield a fiber that can be spun into a wool-like fabric that is soft and lightweight.
That’s plenty of material with which to fashion a strong marketing program.
Just leave the fat phobia out of it.
Dan Murphy is a food industry journalist and commentator