FEATURE: Pet food makers eating up wild game meat as demand falls at restaurants

© Kyodo News

Wild game meat, usually eaten by customers at specialty restaurants in Japan, is being processed and sold as pet food for dogs and cats as normal sales channels dry up amid the COVID-19 crisis.

"Gibier," a French word adopted into Japanese meaning wild game meat, is highly nutritious and popular among pet owners, and it is much in demand due to a pandemic-driven pet ownership boom.

As wildlife damage to agriculture remains an issue for farmers, food distributors hope to minimize it by expanding sales of gibier for pets and providing a reliable source of income for hunters.

Nanpu Foods, a food processor of "Yezo" deer meat in Minamifurano in Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, buys the deer from hunters and processes the meat into jerky and other food products for pets.

To produce jerky, lean red thigh meat from the Yezo deer is mechanically sliced into 1-centimeter thick pieces, then dried in a machine. The deer inhabit Hokkaido, the prefecture which was primarily the domain of the indigenous Ainu people until 1869 when its name was changed from Yezo.

The consumption of low-calorie, high-protein gibier at restaurants has increased in recent years.

In fiscal 2018, before the outbreak of the pandemic, 1,496 tons of gibier were eaten at restaurants and other places, up 36 percent from fiscal 2016 when the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began to compile such data. But consumption dropped to 1,297 tons in fiscal 2020.

Nanpu continued to mark year-on-year gains in sales since the company's founding in 2007 before a major drop in demand caused by people staying away from restaurants during the pandemic.

The company saw the pet boom brought on by the pandemic as a new business opportunity. According to the Japan Pet Food Association, the number of newly bred dogs and cats in 2020 increased roughly by 140,000 from the previous year.

Nanpu, which began processing deer meat into pet food in 2013, overhauled its equipment to increase production. Adding ready-to-eat pouch hamburgers and other new products to its lineup, such as jerkies and condiments, pet food sales in fiscal 2020 jumped 1.5 times the previous year.

Ichimodajin, engaged in gibier sales in the Kyoto prefecture city of Nantan, has also begun selling pet food made from processed deer meat procured from local hunters.

According to Ichimodajin, pet owners seek deer meat because it is considered better for allergies, as well as the nutritious, rich iron and protein content. They often comment about how eagerly their pets devour the meat products and say they see an improvement in their coats.

Companies are both taking advantage of the increased demand and helping reduce the wildlife damage to crops. According to the farm ministry, though on the decline, wildlife damage in Japan reached 16.1 billion yen ($140 million) in fiscal 2020.

Yuji Nukaya, 54, president of Nanpu, saw firsthand how farmers suffered from wildlife damage as an employee of Minamifurano's agricultural cooperative until 2007.

"Although sales have plummeted due to COVID-19, we wish to make it possible for hunters to continue working," he said.

Reo Umesao, 39, who is in charge of marketing at Ichimodajin, said, "We would like to contribute to a reduction of wildlife damage even though gibier demand is falling from restaurants."