Emu Meat: It's Not What's for Dinner

ByABC News
November 21, 2001, 10:17 AM

Nov. 21 -- Geri Johnson just sent 15 pounds of lean meat to a family in Nebraska who wanted something a little different on their Thanksgiving table this year.

Unfortunately for Johnson, emu steaks are a little too different for most Americans.

Ten years ago, this flightless, chubby bird that grows as tall as 6 feet was billed as America's next red meat. Its flesh is a nutritionist's dream it's lean, low in cholesterol and high in iron and vitamin C. Emu connoisseurs attest the bird tastes like a fine filet mignon.

But Americans just haven't taken a liking to it, and American emu farmers like Johnson are struggling to sell their steaks.

"My own brother says it tastes awesome, but he can't get past the mindset," said Johnson, who tends to about 50 of the birds with her husband at their farm in Gill, Mass. "There are people who are just can't feel comfortable eating something besides pork, beef or chicken."

A Tough Business

The emu is native to Australia, where scientists believe it began roaming the Outback some 80 million years ago. The birds were originally imported to the United States as breeding stock for zoos, but a 1960 exportation ban in Australia has since barred emus from crossing the border.

Emu farming from those original zoo stocks first took off in the United States during the late 1980s, and quickly became the fastest-growing segment of alternative agriculture. By the mid-1990s, emu farms from New England to Texas to Montana to California hosted packed, busy pens of the tall, fence-pacing birds.

But selling emu meat is tough business since one bird only yields about 30 pounds of boneless meat (a cow can yield about 550 pounds of meat). By the time she ships her birds for processing and then forwards the meat to customers, Johnson says she often ends up spending more than she earns.

The low-yield problem, coupled with the "yuck" factor among many Americans, led to a shakedown in the emu meat business. Today, membership in the American Emu Association has dropped from about 5,500 in 1992 to about 1,000 today, according to Margaret Pounder, executive officer of the group.