LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Fast-food restaurants use all sorts of promotions to get customers through their doors. Two-for-one deals, toy giveaways, and now, venison. Yes, Arby's is the first major fast-food chain to serve a deer-meat sandwich nationwide. It was part of a one-day event. The company is also trying out an elk sandwich in a few locations. But as Yellowstone Public Radio's Nate Hegyi reports, a Montana conservation group has a beef with Arby's new sandwiches.
NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: At a ranch house in rural Montana, my good friend Rick White is peeling the bun off Arby's new venison sandwich.
RICK WHITE: It looks like deer, venison.
HEGYI: His dog, Finn, is staring at the deer steak, whining.
WHITE: It's a gray meat but not like a ground - doesn't look like a ground patty. Looks kind of more like a McDonald's-style but thicker.
HEGYI: Like a lot of people in Montana, Rick is a lifelong deer hunter. And he's just the kind of person Arby's wants eating their new venison- and elk-steak sandwiches. The company rolled them out last weekend as many states were starting their annual hunting season. And they even have a new ad campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Arby's - we have the venison.
HEGYI: But not everyone is drooling with excitement. Dave Chadwick is executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
DAVE CHADWICK: We really shouldn't be selling game animals for food.
HEGYI: His organization was founded by hunters, anglers and other conservationists. Last week, they sent a letter to Arby's, asking the company to reconsider serving venison- and elk-steak sandwiches, in part because they hearken back to a long and dark history of selling wild game in the United States.
CHADWICK: One of the real drivers of America's wildlife crisis in the 19th century was unregulated market hunting and the idea that big-game animals were being shot and sold for food.
HEGYI: Market hunting drove bison, elk and other wildlife to the brink of extinction before it was eventually banned in the U.S. So it's not like Arby's is sending hunters to the woods to kill thousands of deer and elk. That would be illegal. Instead, the fast-food company is sourcing their venison from game farms in New Zealand. Here's Arby's President Rob Lynch.
ROB LYNCH: It's free-range, grass-fed red-tailed deer - the highest quality venison that you can get anywhere in the world.
HEGYI: He says it's the same venison that's served at high-end restaurants around the country.
LYNCH: You can't procure venison in the United States at scale to commercialize, so we have to go all the way to New Zealand to get this.
HEGYI: But Chadwick says game-farmed deer and elk - even if they're from New Zealand - still strike a nerve.
CHADWICK: It's still just the principle of selling an animal that most Montanans recognize and hold dear as a wild animal and, really, a symbol of the Rocky Mountain West.
HEGYI: Arby's President Rob Lynch says he respects where the Montana Wildlife Federation is coming from. But at the end of the day, it's going to be individual hunters who decide whether or not they'll take to Arby's new sandwiches - hunters like my buddy Rick White. He's leaning over his stove, chewing on the sandwich.
WHITE: Doesn't taste strongly of deer. I would say it would be like deer light or something. You know, like, not a Budweiser, Bud Light. It's - doesn't have that punch to it, but, you know, in a pinch, it's not a bad sandwich.
HEGYI: So at least one hunter kind of likes it. And apparently, so do a lot of others because the company says many of their locations sold out on the first day, although the Arby's I'm standing in front of right now says they still have plenty of venison sandwiches left. For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Bozeman, Mont.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.