LOW SUPPLY GETS RETAILERS' GOATS

NEW YORK -- Goat meat sales have grown markedly in the United States during the past decade, fueled by the burgeoning Hispanic demographic and immigration from Asia, the Caribbean, West Africa and the Middle East.Yet relatively small U.S. herds and a lack of specialized processing facilities make the product a challenge for many traditional retailers to source.The U.S. Department of Agriculture's

NEW YORK -- Goat meat sales have grown markedly in the United States during the past decade, fueled by the burgeoning Hispanic demographic and immigration from Asia, the Caribbean, West Africa and the Middle East.

Yet relatively small U.S. herds and a lack of specialized processing facilities make the product a challenge for many traditional retailers to source.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's recently released census estimates that 1.1 million live meat goats were sold within the country during 2002 -- more than double the number from the previous census in 1997. An additional 15 million pounds of frozen goat meat was imported to the country in 2002, compared to 7 million pounds in 1997, according to the latest available data from the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization. Estimates indicate that imports and live sales have grown significantly since.

"As the immigration of people from countries where goat meat is a traditional part of the diet continues to grow, so has the demand," said Marvin Shurley, president of the American Meat Goat Association, Sonora, Texas.

Called "chevon" in French and "cabrito" in Spanish, goat meat is a dietary staple in many parts of the world outside the United States, and demand for the meat here is concentrated in areas with significant ethnic populations, such as Texas, Florida, California and the urban Northeast.

Studies by state agricultural boards indicate this demand can be significant. Westchester, Ohio-based Halal Market, one of the largest Muslim-operated groceries in the Cincinnati area, is selling about 90 35-pound butchered goats per month, primarily to the store's Muslim and Hispanic customers, according to a November 2003 report by the Ohio Cooperative Development Center. The meat is sourced from a certified processor in Detroit and retails at $2.89 per pound for cuts, $3 per pound for legs, and $4.99 per pound ground.

Shurley said several H.E Butt Grocery stores in the heavily Hispanic south Texas plains region are selling quartered goat as well. Both retailers declined SN's request for comment.

Despite the significant Muslim presence in cities like Detroit and Minneapolis, religious dietary laws regarding the slaughter and processing of meats present additional barriers for traditional grocers attempting to market to that demographic.

Yet for independents willing to cope with the challenges of procuring a steady supply of fresh goat, areas with growing Hispanic populations may offer opportunity. Many small farmers report that sales of live goats directly to Hispanic consumers, who slaughter the animals at home for celebrations and cookouts, currently represent the bulk of their sales.

Lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, pork or chicken, and described as tasting like a cross between veal and venison, goat meat may ultimately gain mainstream appeal, said agricultural co-ops in several states.

"We generally sell out of supplies that we take to local farmers' markets on weekends in our refrigerated van," said Martha Mobley, agricultural extension agent with the North Carolina Meat Goat Producer's Co-op in Louisburg. The group has also promoted goat to local restaurants, but Mobley said a significant percentage of the farmers' sales still go to urban markets in the Northeast.

Western Supermarkets in Birmingham, Ala., recently ran a successful demo and promotion on Alabama goat as part of a broader initiative featuring fresh foods grown by local farmers, Darwin Metcalf, vice president of operations, said in an earlier interview with SN. However, other retailers have not been as fortunate when attempting to market goat to non-ethnic customers.

"It was just so expensive that it was hard to move it," said Mack McLamb, vice president of Carlie C's IGA, Dunn, N.C., which tried selling goat last year to its primarily mainstream customer base. The local co-op that provided the goats had passed along billboard advertising costs in the price of its meat, resulting in a price that discouraged trial, said McLamb. However, he noted, the meat may have sold better under current conditions. With beef so expensive, the price difference may not have been as noticeable.

Marketing campaigns aside, costs could fall with the growth of domestic herds and potentially broaden the meat's popularity, but Shurley said that demand still greatly exceeds supply among core consumers.

"Almost all [goat meat] the U.S. is producing domestically, along with everything we're importing, is now being absorbed by the ethnic consumer base," said Shurley.