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Better than beef?

The mad cow scare could be a blessing in disguise for the developing bison meat business. Rather than being dragged down by the plunging beef market after the discovery last month of a diseased cow in Washington state, bison meat sales have soared. "Every order we received, we had a second call saying they needed to increase the order," said Bob Dineen, president of a Colorado company that sells bison products to specialty food stores.

There have been no known cases of mad cow disease in bison (also known as buffalo). The disease apparently spreads through cattle feed that contains contaminated beef byproducts, but bison don't require high-protein supplemental feed, so they are less likely to be at risk. Also, because the market is so small compared with beef, producers can keep better track of each bison and be more careful in the slaughter process.

After the mad cow report became public, bison entrees at Ted's Montana Grill, a chain founded by Ted Turner, increased 30 percent over the prior week. In fact, bison sales had been on the the rise for most of 2003, mainly because the price gap between more expensive bison meat and beef had narrowed and bison producers had stepped up their marketing effort. Bison meat is lean, contains more iron than beef and is considered tasty. Although fewer bison were sent to market all of last year than cattle were in a single day, the beef industry could learn a few lessons from its upstart competitor.