Although the bison industry is just a baby when it comes to U.S. meat production, there are signs of heightened interest as producers recover from a mid-1990s slump brought on by overproduction.
"People see it more, probably sample it more and they like it," said Roy Rozell, who manages a bison ranch in Colorado.
A good indicator of the bison industry's turnaround is Ted's Montana Grill, a national chain of 18 restaurants co-founded by media mogul and bison ranch owner Ted Turner. The chain is expected to double in size by the end of the year.
Standing outside a Ted's in downtown Denver, attorney Tom Franklin shrugged off the mad cow scare and said he had just enjoyed a bison burger lunch. Another customer, businessman Mitch Zatz, said he likes the taste and the fact that bison meat is leaner than beef.
"It's kind of cool, a change of pace. I feel like, we're in Colorado, we should eat bison," he said.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, 25,340 bison were slaughtered at federally inspected plants, compared with 35 million head of cattle.
Bison meat, higher in iron than beef, can be difficult to find on store shelves and commands a premium in restaurants and supermarkets compared to a similar cut of beef. At Denver-area grocery stores, ground bison was selling for $5.99 per pound, compared to $4.69 per pound for 93 percent lean ground beef.
A recent poll conducted by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association indicated most Americans still believe the beef supply is safe. Bison producers, fearing a chilling effect for their product, say they wouldn't want that to change.
Agriculture officials believe that feed containing protein or bone meal from cows with mad cow disease is the most likely source of infection. Such feed was banned in 1997.
There have been no known cases of mad cow disease in bison, and the animals' natural characteristics make it useless for ranchers to give them extra protein from animal byproducts, said Martin Marchello, an animal sciences professor at North Dakota State University.
Bison haven't been bred for centuries, like beef cattle, to be "a meat wagon," said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association based in Westminster, Colorado.
"The animal just doesn't do well with a real high-protein feed, so there's less tendency to even want to move in the direction of supplementing feed," he said.
Many of the plants where bison are slaughtered and butchered have had long-standing policies against using sick or injured animals for human food, Carter said. The Agriculture Department recently banned use of such animals by beef processors for human consumption.
Carter also said bison are processed in smaller plants that handle far fewer animals than large beef-processing plants — about 25,000 animals per year compared with about 130,000 head of beef slaughtered daily.
It's not a guarantee against disease-causing organisms, Marchello said, but it means workers can take more time and care with each animal and to ensure cleanliness.
"Everybody searches for a healthy product and we have that," said Rozell, the Colorado bison rancher. "I think the American public, they are going to try stuff and when it's good, they're going to come back to it."