RICE SEES EMU MEAT READY FOR TAKE-OFF

HOUSTON -- Rice Food Markets here thinks it has discovered a low-fat alternative to red meat: emu meat.Since March 17, the chain has been offering rump, drum and thigh cuts of emu meat at its six upscale Rice Epicurean Market stores. The meat was initially cooked and sampled to customers for three days the week before that.The emu, a flightless bird, is now recognized as livestock or exotic livestock

HOUSTON -- Rice Food Markets here thinks it has discovered a low-fat alternative to red meat: emu meat.

Since March 17, the chain has been offering rump, drum and thigh cuts of emu meat at its six upscale Rice Epicurean Market stores. The meat was initially cooked and sampled to customers for three days the week before that.

The emu, a flightless bird, is now recognized as livestock or exotic livestock in most states, according to the American Emu Association.

The product is merchandised in both self-service and full-service meat cases. It is available unprepared for $9.99 per pound, or in such value-added forms as emu kabobs and emu scallopini for $11.99 per pound.

Its cost to the retailer is $8 per pound, said Ron Shernak, director of meat operations for Rice, who claims his company was the first supermarket operator in the United States to offer domestically raised emu.

Rice may have been first, but apparently some other retailers are willing to try it, too.

According to the American Emu Association, based in Dallas, at least two other supermarket retailers are adding emu meat to their product mix.

Preston Kirk, the association's spokesman, said a unit of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market in Austin has begun to carry emu, and San Antonio-based H-E-B Grocery Co. is expected to add emu to its Marketplace store in San Antonio and its Central Marketplace store in Austin in the next few weeks.

A.J. Kutach, meat department team leader for the Whole Foods Austin unit, said his store has been carrying emu meat for about a week. So far, he said, "it has been selling well. I had to reorder this morning. I've been getting four to five phone calls every day on it. There is a lot of interest building."

Whole Foods is selling emu steak for $11.99 per pound and ground emu for $7.99 per pound, he said.

A source at H-E-B confirmed that the chain will add emu meat products to the Marketplace and Central Marketplace units within the next two to three weeks.

Shernak at Rice believes emu meat has a future.

"This is something that I really see in the next few years as an alternative to red meat. Not a replacement, but an alternative," he said.

Shernak said emu is 97% fat-free and has a taste and texture comparable to beef. "It eats very similar to steak," he said.

The Rice executive also noted that emu must be cooked with care because of its low fat content, and that Rice's in-store chefs are on hand to discuss preparation methods and recipe ideas.