Do Sandwiches Undermine Fair Chase?

The fast food restaurant Arby's announced it's selling elk sandwiches at its Billings restaurant

By Rob Breeding

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to an Arby’s fast food joint, but the chain got my attention earlier this month when it announced it was selling elk sandwiches at its Billings restaurant, as well as two other out-of-state Arby’s.

The company also has a venison sandwich that will be available chain-wide. Both are one-day promotions. Last year, when the venison sandwich was offered at select locations, it quickly sold out. The trick, apparently, is to line up before opening to ensure you get your game.

I’m fine with the promotion. For non-hunters, it may remove some of the mystery about game meat, and once they sample tasty elk, they may better understand our motivation to hunt.

Not everyone is happy with Arby’s, however. The Montana Wildlife Federation sent the restaurant chain a letter stating the sandwiches weren’t in keeping with the Montana’s tradition of fair-chase big game hunting and our preservation of wildlife. The letter also touched on the contentious history of game farms in the Treasure State, as well as the nasty business of canned kills and the potential for such farms to harbor chronic wasting disease.

I suppose someone was going to complain, but I’m not sure the Arby’s promotion warranted deeply-concerned-letter treatment. If you’ve ever had elk or venison in a restaurant, you were almost certainly eating New Zealand-raised meat. I’ve ordered it a time or two, with a full understanding that what I was eating wasn’t wildlife, and I’m not repressing some deep shame about that culinary choice.

I share with the Federation and most Montanans the pride we have about the wildness of our wildlife. Game farming elk in the midst of wild elk habitat — especially when an operation is supported by “sports” paying to shoot trophy bulls in enclosures — is a business Montanans rightly voted to stop.

All the elk, and closely related red deer, in New Zealand are introduced, however. The native large herbivores of the islands, flightless moa birds, some that were more than 10 feet tall, are now extinct.

Until some evil genius pulls a Jurassic Park with moa DNA, there sadly remains an open ecological niche that these four-legged ungulates can fill.

Red deer — natives of Europe, Asia and North Africa — were first introduced to the islands in the 1800s. Elk came in the 1900s, and the two species produce fertile offspring. Sometimes game farmers breed elk with red deer to produce larger calves for market. That was one of the concerns about Montana game farms: red deer or hybrids would be imported, escape, and pollute the gene pool of our native elk.

The promotional photos of the sandwiches look tasty, though I was initially put off by the thick slab of steak between the buns. I expected Arby’s usual sandwich fare, thinly sliced meat. Thick steak sandwiches are prone to the dreaded slide-out. Slide-outs occur when you can’t quite bite through the meat and the whole slab slides out of its bun chassis, leaving you holding the bread while a hunk of steak dangles from your teeth.

To avoid slide-outs, Arby’s gives the steaks the sous vide treatment: vacuum sealing the venison and then giving it a 135-degree water bath for more than three hours. This tenderizes the meat so it isn’t so toothsome. The steaks are then shipped out to restaurants where they are reheated, hopefully with some time on a hot griddle to add a tasty crust, before service.

Tasty or not, I’m fine with the Arby’s promotion so long as they keep living red deer in New Zealand.

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