America’s bison ranchers are bullish about 2011.

They are coming off their best year ever, with prices in the range of $3.25 per pound for slaughter bulls being about 35 percent higher than a year earlier.

Consumer demand drove 92,000 bison to slaughter in 2010, up about 77 percent over the number processed in 2009.

America’s bison herd, stretched across every state, numbers about 500,000 head.  Bison ranchers are competing this week in the national bison competition at the National Western Stock Show now underway in Denver.  

The National Gold Trophy Bison Sale is scheduled for Saturday, Jan 12.

The only part of the bison story that is not filled with optimism is the recall last June 30 of 33 tons of bison meat by Henderson, CO-based Rocky Mountain Natural Meats.  It remains a current recall, according to the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS).

A cluster of five O157 cases in Colorado were linked by FSIS to ground bison products in the recall.  The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has not published a report on the outbreak, which also included a victim in New York State.

A request for more information from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on the bison-related outbreak went unanswered on the last day of Gov. Bill Ritter’s term in office.

Rocky Mountain Natural Meats is a 15-year-old company that currently employs about 80 people.  It supplies bison to major grocery store chains under its Great Range brand.

Unlike beef and pork slaughterhouses, bison processors  “volunteer” for USDA inspection and must pay for the service.  However, bison is not subjected to the same type of E. coli O157:H7 testing, as is the routine in beef slaughterhouses.  

Bison is inspected under the Federal Meat Inspection Act to determine its healthfulness and fitness as human food.   Without USDA inspection, bison could not be sold across state borders.

On its website, Rocky Mountain says it does test daily for E. coli O147:H7.

Bison and beef cattle share the same risks for O157.  A 2004 North Dakota State University study found the levels of E. coli on pre-hiding bison carcasses at 88 percent, and 11.3 percent on chilled carcasses.