Producers can't ship rabbit meat fast enough

Monday, August 15, 2005

The growth in demand is unlike that of beef or pork because no marketing effort is behind it.

WEST HAVEN, Vt. -- Talk about culinary irony -- rabbit meat is in short supply.

Despite the critters' proclivity to reproduce, demand for rabbit meat has surged in recent years and breeders are struggling to supply the many trendy restaurants adding it to their menus.

"We could easily be doing 1,000 a week. The demand is there," said Langis Anctil, whose Champlain Valley Rabbitry farm in West Haven, Vt., is working full tilt to raise that many bunnies a month.

It's not that rabbits don't reproduce fast enough -- it's just an 11-week cycle from birth to broiler. The problem is that there aren't enough producers.

It's just a $10 million industry, so small the government barely tracks it.

For restaurants such as Minibar, a posh eatery in Los Angeles that offered a popular rabbit sausage since opening nearly two years ago, this has meant serious supply problems.

"We would find a purveyor with the product at the right price, but then they'd run out and we'd find another and then they would run out, and that's what it's been like for about eight months," said owner Ravel Centeno-Rodrigues. "Finally, we took it off the menu."

The number of producers has been in a steady decline since rabbit's heyday about 60 years ago. That's when a wartime meat shortage led the federal government to urge people to switch to rabbit. But as the supply of red meat and chicken improved, rabbit fell from favor.

Industry insiders also blame its decline on an undeserved bad rap. Though farm-raised rabbit tastes like chicken, it has a reputation as a tough and gamey meat -- likely because wild rabbit generally is.

The Easter Bunny syndrome -- a reluctance by many Americans to eat animals that are cute and fuzzy -- hasn't helped, either, according to Pat Lamar, president of the Professional Rabbit Meat Association.

But it seems the bad reputation is fading. In 2004, the United States imported more than 1 million pounds of rabbit meat -- mostly from China -- a near doubling from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kate Krader, a senior editor at Food & Wine magazine, sees rabbit on menus everywhere and attributes the renewed interest to the growth in bistro-style restaurants, which focus on rustic fare, including wild game.

What's impressive about the growth is that unlike beef and pork, there is no marketing effort behind it, she said.

Part of the appeal is health. Rabbit is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. Americans also are traveling more widely and encountering rabbit on European menus, especially in France and Italy. And American chefs are ever on the watch for new tastes and textures.

Rabbit now is common in specialty food shops in large cities, and is creeping into mainstream grocers. Publix supermarkets offers rabbit at 250 of its 800 stores in the Southeast.

The meat has not fared as well in the grocers in the Northeast, however, where poor sales recently prompted Hannaford Bros. Co. to pull it from the shelves of its 146 stores after five months.

Such setbacks haven't slowed the industry much. At Pel-Freez, the nation's largest rabbit meat processor, work once slowed to part time much of the year. Now it is all the Rogers, Ark., company can do to keep pace.

The hodgepodge nature of the industry complicates that. Because so many rabbit breeders are small-time farmers who go in and out of the business, companies such as Pel-Freez must constantly look for new suppliers.

It also isn't easy on the breeding end. Rabbits can have high mortality rates and a dearth of processors means many breeders must rely on so-called bunny runners to transport the animals to slaughter, sometimes many states away.

Anctil gets around that by processing his own rabbits -- snapping their necks, skinning and gutting them. Despite a steady stream of chefs and culinary students visiting his remote farm, he seems surprised by his success.

He only regrets that he can't keep the rabbits on his farm a bit longer, fattening them up a bit more. He slaughters them when they reach 2 3/4 or 3 pounds. The market just won't wait longer.

"They move so fast we don't have time to get them bigger," he said.

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