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Bison Dilemma: Native American Natural Foods responds to rising food costs

January 05, 2021

Bison Dilemma: Native American Natural Foods responds to rising food costs
The cost of food is one global topic on the forefront of conversation this year as reports have stated a steady rise in prices, and Native American Natural Foods has not been immune to its impact.

Lauren Davidson of the Atlanta Journal Constitution recently wrote, "...We're on track to see prices increase in five key categories for the whole of 2011, although the gains nationwide won't be quite as high as what we've already seen since just last May, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

One of those five categories is the meat, fish and poultry category, which will see a rise of five to six percent and is already up 8.3 percent from last year, according to the USDA. The Consumer Price Index for all food is projected to increase three to four percent this year.

Bison is also on the list to see an increase in prices because the supply has yet to be able to respond to the demand. Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association in Westminster, CO, said in an article on redding.com, that "buffalo fall in line" with the way people are choosing to eat - local, sustainable and nutritional.

Because of that demand, the buffalo industry has seen more than a 35 percent increase in wholesale cost. Like any food company faced with these trends, Native American Natural Foods, which produces the Tanka Bar, is responding to these changing times.

Mark A. Tilsen, president, said the company will execute a short-term and long-term strategy. The short-term strategy is, "We will work with our supplier network to focus on long-term contracts to provide A-trim, 90 percent lean buffalo meat and B-trim for the Tanka Hot Dogs." In addition, Tanka will work with a long-term supplier and get as much Native American buffalo as it can and buy the rest through long-term contracts.

"That way, we are able to make sure we have a steady supply," he said.

Making Tanka more sustainable

In order to remain affordable, the company has had to increase the overall efficiency of everything else involved in making Tanka products while ensuring that the label remains as pure as possible. To do this means implementing a more efficient packaging method by using rollstock, which evacuates all of the oxygen in the product. When 100 percent natural meat is exposed to oxygen, it can grow mold on it because there are no nitrates to protect it. Tanka products have more moisture than jerky products, which "requires us to protect it from oxygen in any way we can," Mr. Tilsen said.

Prior to the new packaging, there was an oxygen absorber in every package of Tanka Bars and Tanka Bites, but the new rollstock packaging doesn't have oxygen in it because of the vacuum process.

"In addition to it being a more efficient way to package the product, the new packaging will also keep the product fresher, longer," Mr. Tilsen said. "You could open it a year from now and the cranberries will taste the same as the day it was made. The new packaging also allows us to reduce the material by more than 50 percent, making it a more ecologically sustainable product. Part of us growing up as a company is learning to become more efficient and trying to do everything we can to protect the value of the buffalo."

Tanka Bar cartons are also produced using 100 percent wind energy and the packaging is an earth-friendly, easy open wrapper. It is imperative to the company to remain an ecologically sound business as well as remaining true to the product.

Funding the return of the buffalo

As for Native American Natural Foods' long-term strategy, the company will work to grow the buffalo ranching population -- namely by increasing the number of Native American ranches.

"We realize that in order for Native American people to be able to participate, we need to recognize what the barriers are. A Native cattle person or a young Native person just entering ranching does not have access to enough financing to do this," Mr. Tilsen said.

Native American Natural Foods is working with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation to create the American Indian Buffalo Restoration Fund to generate a pool of capital to help leverage financing so more Native American people will be able to raise buffalo. The company will participate in this growth and use the success of Tanka Bar as a guaranteed customer for these potential ranchers.

Tanka Bar is one of the top protein snacks in the natural food category and will use that reputation to drive impact back to the more isolated reservations in the Great Plains. The creation of the fund is the first step to this goal, which will not only look to grow the number of Native buffalo ranchers, but to honor all parts of the animal.

"Traditionally when a buffalo was taken, Lakota people used every part of the buffalo for medicine, tools, housing, food and jewelry. With the creation of this new fund, and our partnerships, we hope to innovate a modern, sustainable company based on the Lakota values of using 100 percent of the buffalo," Mr. Tilsen said. "Native American Natural Foods is a social enterprise, meaning that our mission is not something to just have on the web, but something central in our decision-making process. "

Although he cautions that these plans won't happen overnight, Mr. Tilsen is standing strong to a set goal of bringing another million acres of Native land to bring the buffalo back.

"We don't know if this will happen in 10 or 15 years, but we can see the growth in the last 100 years and want it to continue. We are participating in a long historic effort," Mr. Tilsen said. "We are standing on the shoulders of people who dedicated their lives to restoring the buffalo. Tanka Bar recognizes, in a respectful way, all of those who came before us. We are bringing the buffalo back through innovation. We believe in innovation."

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