Venison was first exported as frozen basic cuts, such as the saddle (bone-in back steaks), bone-in haunches, shoulder, and the boneless remainder. In the early 1980s a meat distributor in Denver, Colorado developed a cut where the back legs were boned out and packed as ‘denver leg’.
Some hind leg cuts are very tender and when cooked carefully are similar to the choice ‘medallions’ cut from back steaks. Venison cuts are increasingly marketed chilled rather than frozen, but the front leg, neck and belly are still sold frozen.
Venison trademarked as Cervena must be naturally produced, and processed in accredited plants. The animals must be three years old or less, raised free-range without hormones or steroids, and fed grass supplemented by natural foods like hay. There are also transport requirements.
As export volumes grew, the Game Industry Board started an initiative to differentiate farmed venison from wild game meat. The Cervena brand was launched in the US and New Zealand in 1993. The protected label was limited to processing and exporting companies that met the board’s standards.
A ‘farm to plate’ quality-assurance programme specified farm systems and processes. Guarantees were given on animal age, processing and storage. Trained and accredited transport operators used specially made crates.
The Cervena programme was funded by processors and the deer farming industry through levies. The aim was to promote farmed venison in the food and hospitality business. Marketing included promotions and cooking demonstrations, giving Cervena a high profile in the quality restaurant industry.
A ‘Zeal’ quality mark was also launched to separate New Zealand farmed venison from traditional game products in European markets.
Venison ‘boom and bust’ cycles
The venison business has always been a ‘boom and bust’ affair, with big variations in price. This is largely due to the small market, fluctuating supply levels, and the industry’s inability to match supply with demand.
In 2007, revenue for farmers rose after extremely low returns in previous years.
Changes in supply and price
From 2002 to 2006 the amount of venison exported rose from 16,000 to 27,000 tonnes, or by almost 70% – but low prices meant the value of these exports overall increased by less than 20%, from $210 million to $250 million. From 2002 to 2004, despite a 50% increase in the amount of meat exported, total export earnings actually fell, to $200 million.
Between 2002 and 2006, farmers slaughtered increasing numbers of hinds, in response to the low meat prices. This over-supply of meat led to a further decline in returns. The number of slaughtered deer overall increased by 58% over these four years, making it difficult to successfully market venison.
Venison marketing and supply is further complicated by very volatile returns from velvet antler (antler tissue from stags, used as a health product). When the price for velvet drops (usually from over-supply), as in 2004–5, farmers send stags onto the venison market, causing an over-supply of meat.
The best market for exported venison has traditionally been in Europe before Christmas. The highest prices have usually been paid to New Zealand deer farmers from September to mid-November.
Between 2002 and 2006, the proportion of New Zealand venison exported to Germany remained at about 40%, although total volume increased. Belgium and the Netherlands are important entry points for venison into the European Union, and Scandinavia and North America are taking more meat.
Total value of exports
The total export value of venison in the year to 31 March 2007 was $260 million. In comparison, export earnings from dairy products were $8.41 billion, lamb meat $2.25 billion, beef $1.81 billion, and wool $686 million.